Saturday, October 15, 2005

Interesting Student Note on Sutton

New on Westlaw: Katherine Hsu Hagmann-Borenstein, Much Ado About Nothing: Has the Supreme Court's Sutton Decision Thwarted a Flood of Frivolous Litigation?, 37 Conn. L. Rev. 1121 (2005). From the introduction:

Although the Sutton majority grounds its reasoning in the "plain meaning" of the ADA, an important pragmatic concern lies below the surface of its holding. The plaintiffs in Sutton and Murphy had common ailments that affect a large segment of America's population. In the briefs and oral argument, the parties and Justices repeatedly referred to the number of people who would benefit from ADA protection if the Court found for the plaintiffs. The majority clearly harbored concerns that a broad interpretation of "disability" would unleash a flood of frivolous litigation, and other members of the legal community shared these concerns. For example, Stephen Bokat, general counsel for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce commended the decision as avoiding a huge increase in cases. Peter J. Petesch, an attorney who represents the Society for Human Resource Management, also applauded the decision. Petesch remarked that Congress designed the ADA to protect an insular minority, and a decision for the plaintiffs would have trivialized the statute by stretching it to cover a majority of Americans.

At first blush, these fears appear valid, but Justice Stevens raised a compelling rebuttal in his dissent. Under other anti-discrimination legislation, anyone may file a race, sex, or religious discrimination claim. If plaintiffs are not filing scores of frivolous lawsuits under Title VII, why would a broader ADA encourage them to do so?

This Comment tests Justice Stevens's hypothesis. At least two states, California and Massachusetts, have explicitly rejected the Sutton trilogy by deciding that their state anti-discrimination statutes contemplate impairments in their unmitigated forms. Massachusetts's judiciary came to this conclusion even though its statutory definition of disability is nearly identical to the ADA's definition. California's disability definition was also modeled after the ADA, but, in 2001, the California legislature altered its statute in response to the Supreme Court's ruling. This Comment examines disability claim filing statistics from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing ("DFEH") and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination ("MCAD") to determine whether these jurisdictions have, in fact, experienced a flood of claims in response to the changes in their laws. It also examines how these jurisdictions' courts have balanced employers' interests in weeding out frivolous claims against disabled employees' interests in vindicating their rights.

While claim filings involving certain mitigated disabilities increased after California's Sutton disavowal, the data suggests that individuals with run-of-the-mill impairments such as nearsightedness are not flocking to the courthouse. In addition, increases in the number of disability claims occurred in proportion to overall increases in DFEH claim filings. In other words, increases in disability claim filings are part of a larger trend which could be caused by population growth instead of by the public's response to a change in the law. Thus, it appears that the relatively liberal California and Massachusetts state laws have had little negative effect, while they have greatly enhanced the protections afforded to the states' disabled populations. Plaintiffs with legitimate claims who sue under the state statutes are much less likely to be thrown out of court based on the definition of "disability." Yet courts in California and Massachusetts retain many methods to dismiss frivolous suits. In sum, these states have achieved a better balance between plaintiffs' and defendants' rights than exists under federal law.


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