OCTOBER TERM, 1998
ALBERTSON'S, INC. v. KIRKINGBURG
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
No. 98-591. Argued April 28, 1999-Decided June 22, 1999
Before beginning a truckdriver's job with petitioner, Albertson's, Inc., in 1990, respondent, Kirkingburg, was examined to see if he met the Department of Transportation's basic vision standards for commercial truckdrivers, which require corrected distant visual acuity of at least 20/40 in each eye and distant binocular acuity of at least 20/40. Although he has amblyopia, an uncorrectable condition that leaves him with 20/200 vision in his left eye and thus effectively monocular vision, the doctor erroneously certified that he met the DOT standards. When his vision was correctly assessed at a 1992 physical, he was told that he had to get a waiver of the DOT standards under a waiver program begun that year. Albertson's, however, fired him for failing to meet the basic DOT vision standards and refused to rehire him after he received a waiver. Kirkingburg sued Albertson's, claiming that firing him violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). In granting summary judgment for Albertson's, the District Court found that Kirkingburg was not qualified without an accommodation because he could not meet the basic DOT standards and that the waiver program did not alter those standards. The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that Kirkingburg had established a disability under the Act by demonstrating that the manner in which he sees differs significantly from the manner in which most people see; that although the ADA allowed Albertson's to rely on Government regulations in setting a job-related vision standard, Albertson's could not use compliance with the DOT regulations to justify its requirement because the waiver program was a legitimate part of the DOT's regulatory scheme; and that although Albertson's could set a vision standard different from the DOT's, it had to justify its independent standard and could not do so here.
1. The ADA requires monocular individuals, like others claiming the Act's protection, to prove a disability by offering evidence that the extent of the limitation on a major life activity caused by their impairment is substantial. The Ninth Circuit made three missteps in determining that Kirkingburg's amblyopia meets the ADA's first definition of disability, i. e., a physical or mental impairment that "substantially limits" a major life activity, 42 U. S. C. § 12101(2)(A). First,
although it relied on an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulation that defines "substantially limits" as requiring a "significant restrict[ion]" in an individual's manner of performing a major life activity, see 29 CFR § 1630.2(j)(ii), the court actually found that there was merely a significant "difference" between the manner in which Kirkingburg sees and the manner in which most people see. By transforming "significant restriction" into "difference," the court undercut the fundamental statutory requirement that only impairments that substantially limit the ability to perform a major life activity constitute disabilities. Second, the court appeared to suggest that it need not take account of a monocular individual's ability to compensate for the impairment, even though it acknowledged that Kirkingburg's brain had subconsciously done just that. Mitigating measures, however, must be taken into account in judging whether an individual has a disability, Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc., ante, at 482, whether the measures taken are with artificial aids, like medications and devices, or with the body's own systems. Finally, the Ninth Circuit did not pay much heed to the statutory obligation to determine a disability's existence on a case-by-case basis. See 42 U. S. C. § 12101(2). Some impairments may invariably cause a substantial limitation of a major life activity, but monocularity is not one of them, for that category embraces a group whose members vary by, e. g., the degree of visual acuity in the weaker eye, the extent of their compensating adjustments, and the ultimate scope of the restrictions on their visual abilities. Pp. 562-567.
2. An employer who requires as a job qualification that an employee meet an otherwise applicable federal safety regulation does not have to justify enforcing the regulation solely because its standard may be waived experimentally in an individual case. Pp. 567-578.
(a) Petitioner's job qualification was not of its own devising, but was the visual acuity standard of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, and is binding on Albertson's, see 49 CFR § 391.11. The validity of these regulations is unchallenged, they have the force of law, and they contain no qualifying language about individualized determinations. Were it not for the waiver program, there would be no basis for questioning petitioner's decision, and right, to follow the regulations. pp. 567-570.
(b) The regulations establishing the waiver program did not modify the basic visual acuity standard in a way that disentitles an employer like Albertson's to insist on the basic standard. One might assume that the general regulatory standard and the regulatory waiver standard ought to be accorded equal substantive significance, but that is not the case here. In setting the basic standards, the Federal Highway Admin-