Judicial Interpretations of the Americans with Disabilities Act

by Amanda M. Ward

Recently, I spoke to a Hofstra Law alumnus who has a physical disability. He spoke about the challenges he has faced since elementary school up to today, and how the law has worked toward reducing discrimination against disabled people, even though it still fails to protect many people. He asked me what I thought a disability was. This was so strange to me, as I felt one just innately knows what a disability is, or at the very least, it could be a condition that affects the way one lives. He then pointed me to some case law that shows this is not an easy question and it is something the courts have been dealing with for a while.

In PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, the Respondent brought a cause of action against a non-profit professional golf association that holds golf tournaments.[1] The Petitioner held a competition that consisted of four rounds.[2] During each round, the Petitioner required the players in its tournaments to walk to each hole.[3] The Respondent, who suffers from a circulatory disorder that resulted in a malformation of his right leg, entered the competition and made it to the third round.[4] The Respondent had followed the Petitioner’s rule and walked the first two rounds, but after advancing to the third round, he requested the use of a golf cart.[5] The association would not look at his medical documents and disregarded his request stating plaintiff would have to continuing walking for the third round.[6] Respondent then received an injunction to allow him to use a golf cart for the remainder of the tournament.[7]

In PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, it was clear to the Court that Martin was being discriminated against based on his disability. However, a new question arises: when do the rights of the Defendant come into play? The following case shows the Court’s struggle to balance the rights of the disabled with the rights of a doctor and his staff.

In Bragdon v. Abbott, the Plaintiff/Respondent was infected with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (“HIV”).[8] The Respondent went to Petitioner’s dental office to fill a cavity, and notified the dentist of her HIV infection.[9] The dentist had a policy of not filling cavities of HIV infected patients.[10] The Respondent brought a cause of action under the Americans with Disabilities Act claiming she was discriminated against due to her HIV condition.[11] The Petitioner claimed that she caused a direct threat, thus creating an exception to the Americans with Disabilities Act.[12] The Court held that HIV was in fact a disability even before symptoms manifest.[13] The case was remanded to examine the Petitioner dentist’s claim that the Respondent posed a “direct threat.”[14]

In Bragdon v. Abbott, the Court was able to clearly distinguish that the Respondent had a disability but was not sure what protection she should be afforded.[15] Although the law has acknowledged that people with disabilities need some form of protection, there are still questions left to the judicial branch that ask what is a disability, and how should the law balance the rights of the disabled and the rights of society.

[1] PGA Tour, Inc., v. Martin, 532 U.S. 661 (2001).

[2] See id. at 665.

[3] See id. at 666-7.

[4] Id. at 668-9.

[5] See id. at 669.

[6] Id.

[7] See id. at 690-1.

[8] Bragdon v. Abbott, 524 U.S. 624 (1998).

[9] Id. at 628-9.

[10] Id. at 629.

[11] Id.

[12] See id. at 629-30.

[13] Id. at 631.

[14] Id. at 655.

[15] Id.

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