Casey at the Mat
THE PGA NEVER had a chance in its battle with Casey Martin, the disabled professional golfer who last week won the right to use a cart to ferry him around the course in PGA-sponsored tournaments.
Since its inception, the Americans With Disabilities Act has successfully been used by everyone from infertile cops to drunken airline pilots to force employers to provide them special treatment in the name of accommodating the disabled. A judge's ruling last week that the PGA is a "public accommodation" under the 1990 ADA and that it must alter its playing rules to make "reasonable" allowances for disabled golfers is the first time the law has been applied to professional sports, but it has already wreaked havoc in other circles.
In Chicago last year, a federal judge decided that a policewoman's infertility was a "disability" as defined by the ADA and therefore could not be treated differently from other physical or mental conditions covered by the law. A proposed settlement by the city would pay $1.5 million in back claims for artificial insemination and other fertility treatments that had previously been denied under the city's health insurance policy.
And if the treatments don't work, infertile cops could, arguably, make other demands as well. If infertility leads to depression, irritability or hostility toward co-workers, the ADA grants even more protection. New guidelines put out last March by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for example, note that irritability "may be linked to mental impairments" that are covered by the law. In these circumstances, employers must make "reasonable accommodations" for the affected employee, including time off from work or a modified work schedule.
Perhaps the most infamous case of disability abuse, however, involved a Northwest Airline pilot who was arrested, along with two other crew members, for flying a Boeing 727 with 58 passengers aboard while drunk. During his trial, the pilot's lawyers argued that he was a seasoned alcoholic who had built up a tolerance to liquor so he shouldn't be judged by normal blood alcohol level standards.
His alcoholism defense carried no weight with the judge in his criminal trial, who sentenced him to jail. Nonetheless, his alcoholism ensured the pilot his job back with Northwest when he left prison. Under the ADA, the airline had little choice but to rehire the man after he successfully completed an alcoholism rehabilitation program. After two years as a ground trainer, the pilot won the right to be put back in the cockpit.
Not only does the law itself force employers to treat alcoholism and drug addiction as disabilities and require expensive rehabilitation treatments and workplace accommodation for the afflicted, the courts have gone even further. A Dallas jury awarded a $7.1 million verdict to an executive fired after what the company deemed "violent and threatening behavior" toward colleagues at a company party because the man was deemed an alcoholic and, presumably, not responsible for his alcohol-induced actions. In his book "The Excuse Factory: How Employment Law Is Paralyzing the American Workplace," author Walter Olson describes literally hundreds of such cases, totaling billions of dollars in awards and lost productivity.
The ADA is only the latest in a series of well-intended laws that have gone far beyond their original purpose of outlawing irrational and invidious discrimination.
No one doubts that thousands of worthy, disabled workers have benefited from a law that protects access to jobs for which they are fully qualified. But the law has also become a haven for everyone from scam artists to disgruntled workers.
Olson cites one railway worker who won a $300,000 worker's compensation suit for a back injury that supposedly permanently incapacitated him -- and then sued eight days later under the ADA to get his old job back. He lost, but the tactic has become commonplace, according to an attorney for the railroad.
The Martin decision won't destroy professional golf by permitting one talented young
golfer to ride from hole to hole -- the PGA Senior Tour already allows golf carts in its
tournaments. But what happens next in professional sports as a result of this ADA
ruling? Will Latrell Sprewell be able to claim mental impairment as a defense in his
case with the NBA, which has disciplined him for violently attacking his Golden State
Warriors coach? What about players who are permanently injured in a game? Will they
be able to claim they're entitled to reasonable accommodation to keep them on the
team? You can bet plaintiffs attorneys are already lining up their
2/11/98: The legal profession's Final Solution
2/4/98: Faith and the movies
1/28/98: Clinton, Lewinsky, and Politics Vs. Principle
1/21/98: Movement on the Abortion Front
1/14/98: Clones, Courts, and Contradictions
1/7/98: Child custody or child endangerment?
12/31/97: Jerry Seinfeld, All-American
12/24/97: Affirmative alternatives: New initiatives for equal opportunity are out there
12/17/97: Opening a window of opportunity (a way out of bilingual education for California's Hispanic kids)