Top state court broadly defines disability in bias cases

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PORTLAND (AP) – A closely divided state supreme court ruled Tuesday that a discrimination claim based on a physical or mental disability need not require the complainant to show a substantial limitation on a major life activity.

The court further concluded that a Maine Human Rights Commission regulation defining a physical and mental impairment was invalid because it required such a showing.

Advocates for organized labor and the disabled applauded the ruling, saying it opens the courthouse door to victims of discrimination. Business interests expressed fear that it could lead to a flood of claims and fuel the perception that Maine was a bad place in which to conduct business.

The Supreme Judicial Court’s 4-3 decision came on questions referred by the U.S. District Court in a lawsuit brought by a Wal-Mart employee who was removed from his management job because high blood pressure and “possibly serious” heart disease did not allow him to work the minimum number of hours the job required.

Stanley Whitney, 69, of Gorham, who accepted a lesser job at the Scarborough store, had sought reinstatement as manager of the tire-lube express department at the North Windham store, along with money damages.

The federal magistrate judge who heard the case recommended a summary judgment in Wal-Mart’s favor on grounds that Maine’s disability discrimination law provided no remedy for Whitney unless he could establish that his disability substantially limited a major life activity.

But instead of endorsing that recommendation, U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby opted to ask the state supreme court to weigh in with its interpretation of the Maine Human Rights Act.

In finding that a showing of substantial limitation is not required, the court decided that Maine’s language is not consistent with that of the corresponding federal statute, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which critics say has blocked many disability-related cases from getting a court hearing.

“This changes the landscape. It’s a pretty earth-shaking decision,” said David Webbert, the Augusta lawyer who represented the Maine AFL-CIO in arguing on Whitney’s behalf before the supreme court. “The federal law had been so gutted that the state law is incredibly important in giving people with disabilitiies in Maine a chance for justice.”

Philip Moss of Portland, who appeared as a friend of the court on behalf of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, suggested that the ruling may reinforce the state’s reputation as a bad place to do business.

“It’s going to lead to more claims, it’s going to hurt the business climate, it’s going to put pressure on the Maine Human Rights Commission that doesn’t have the staff or the budget to cope with the increase in claims and it’s going to affect the public perception of the business climate in Maine,” he said.

Webbert said the ruling could reduce the number of disability-related lawsuits.

“In this case, Wal-mart acted arrogantly because they thought the law wouldn’t protect the guy,” he said. “(The ruling) actually brings clarity to the law, and that brings less litigation.”

Chad Hansen, staff attorney for the Disability Rights Center in Augusta, also played down the likelihood of a flood of litigation and said the ruling simply puts Maine law in line with such other states as New Jersey, New York and California.

“This aligns us with a number of states in terms of a more inclusive definition” of physical and mental impairment, he said.

Lawyers for the two sides agreed that the issue is all but certain to come up before the Legislature, possibly emerging as a key test of political strength during the next session.

There will be pressure on lawmakers to change the law, Moss said, and other interests will line up on the other side.

Webbert and Moss also agreed that disagreements among the justices during oral arguments and the nearly seven months that passed before the court issued its ruling signaled the sharp split among the justices.

Justices Donald Alexander, Susan Calkins, Howard Dana and Warren Silver agreed in the majority opinion that the history of the adoption and judicial interpretation of the definition of disability in the statute “leaves no ambiguity.”

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley and Justices Robert Clifford and Jon Levy signed off on the dissent, saying the law is ambiguous and the court should defer to the Human Rights Commission’s reasonable interpretation.

Whitney’s case now goes back to the federal court, where it would go to trial if he and Wal-Mart are unable to reach a settlement.

Whitney, a former computer industry executive who had worked for Wal-Mart in Florida, was hired for the salaried job in North Windham in 2001, but his health began to deteriorate shortly thereafter. He had been working an average of six days and more than 70 hours a week, and asked that he be allowed to trim his hours to no more than 45 because of his poor health, according to the court decision. His supervisors told him that the minimum the job demanded was 48 to 52 hours.

Now on medical leave, Whitney said he was gratified by the court’s decision and was eager to get back to work.

“It’s been a long, frustrating period. It’s been almost seven months since we got to the supreme court, and this thing started almost five years ago,” said Whitney, adding that he believes his age was a factor in his removal from his job.

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