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High Court Rules Against Wells; Further Narrows ADA
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
April 23, 2003

WASHINGTON, DC--The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled against an Oregon woman who had sued her employer claiming she was fired because of her disability.

In its 7-2 decision, the high court said that the company was too small to be covered under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act because its owners could not be considered as employees.

The case involved Deborah Anne Wells who worked at Clackamas Gastroenterology Associates, P.C., for 11 years and was fired in 1997 because of her disability, described as "a debilitating tissue disorder". Wells claimed that she was demoted, then forced to resign. Wells sued the clinic under the ADA which bans discrimination against people with disabilities.

The courts did not address whether the clinic had discriminated against Wells, but instead focused on whether the clinic was large enough to be covered under the ADA. When Congress drafted the ADA, it said that small businesses -- defined as having 15 or more employees -- were not required to follow the employment provisions in the law. But Congress did not define who is or is not an employee.

The clinic argued that the owners -- which included four doctors -- were not employees. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that they were employees and that the clinic therefore had more than the 15 employee limit and would have had to follow the ADA.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out the Court of Appeals decision and sided with the clinic.

Justice John Paul Stevens explained the court based its ruling on standards used by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which say that a person is not an employee if, for example, the person cannot be fired or is liable if the company loses money. The doctors at the clinic appeared to fall into that category, Stevens said, because "they apparently control the operation of their clinic, they share the profits and they are personally liable for malpractice claims."

Disability rights advocates worried that the ruling could cause thousands of small companies to deliberately avoid following the ADA.

"It's unfortunate that the court has taken a miserly reading of this broad civil rights law," said Peter Blanck, a University of Iowa law professor specializing in the disabilities law. "Companies will think twice about whether or not they have to make an ADA accommodation."

The case was 01-1435, Clackamas Gastroenterology Associates, P.C., v. Deborah Wells.

"01-1435 Clackamas Gastroenterology Associates, P.C. v. Wells" (FindLaw for Legal Professionals)


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