Sutton et al. v. United Air Lines, Inc.
Decided on June 22, 1999; 527 US 471


A. Issues Discussed: Civil rights (federal), disability discrimination, rights of the handicapped

 B. Legal Question Presented:

Should the determination that a physical impairment is substanially limiting be made without reference to corrective measures that mitigate the impairment? Is poor vision regarded as an impairment that substantially limits the Suttons in a major life activity?

A. Background:

Karen and Kimberly Sutton (Petitioners), twin sisters with severe myopia, applied for employment as commercial airline pilots with United Air Lines (Respondents). The petitioners' application was rejected by United Air Lines because their uncorrected visual acuity did not meet the employer’s minimum vision requirements. Petitioners consequently filed a lawsuit against United Airlines under the American Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which prohibits employers to discriminate against disabled individuals on the basis of their disability.

The ADA defines a disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more... major life activities” or as “being regarded as having such an impairment.”

The district court held that the petitioners did not fall within the category protected by the ADA, as their impairment could be mitigated by the use of glasses and as such it was not substantially limiting of any major life activity. Petitioners' complaint was hence dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
B. Counsel of Record:


Opposing Side

Van Aaron Hughes argued the cause for the petitioners. With him on the briefs were Tucker K. Trautman and Shawn D. Mitchell. Roy T. Englert argued the cause for the respondents. With him on the brief were Lisa Hogan and Patrick F. Carrigan.

C. The Arguments:

Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable


Opposing Side
Deputy Solicitor General Edward S. Kneedler argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. On the briefs were Solicitor General Waxman, Acting Assistant Attorney General Lee, DeputySolicitor General Underwood, James A. Feldman, Jessica Dunsay Silver, Seth M. Galanter, Philip B. Sklover and Carolyn L. Wheeler.

Additional briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for AIDS Action et al. by Claudia Center and Guy Wallace; for the American Civil Liberties Union by Louis M. Bograd, Chai R. Feldblum, Steven R. Shapiro, and Matthew A. Coles; for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations by Jonathan P. Hiatt, Marsha S. Berzon, and Laurence Gold; and for the National Employment Lawyers Association by Gary Ph
elan and Paula A. Brantner.
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the Air Transport Association of America, Inc., by John J. Gallagher, Neal D. Mollen, and Margaret H. Spurlin; and for the Equal Employment Advisory Council et al. by Ann Elizabeth Reesman, Corrie L. Fischel, Stephen A. Bokat, Robin S. Conrad, and J. Walker Henry.

Briefs of amici curiae were filed for LPA, Inc., by Daniel V. Yager; for the Society for Human Resource Management by Peter J. Petesch, Thomas J. Walsh, Jr., Timothy S. Bland, and David S. Harvey, Jr.; and for Senator Tom Harkin et al. by Arlene B. Mayerson.


"We conclude that respondent is correct that the approach adopted by the agency guidelines - that persons are to be evaluated in their hypothetical uncorrected state - is an impermissible interpretation of the ADA. Looking at the Act as a whole, it is apparent that if a person is taking measures to correct for, or mitigate, a physical or mental impairment, the effects of those measures-both positive and negative must be taken into account when judging whether that person is 'substantially limited' in a major life activity and thus 'disabled' under the Act...

Because the phrase 'substantially limits' appears in the Act in the present indicative verb form, we think the language is properly read as requiring that a person be presently - not potentially or hypothetically - substantially limited in order to demonstrate a disability. A 'disability' exists only where an impairment 'substantially limits' a major life activity, not where it 'might,' 'could,' or 'would' be substantially limiting if mitigating measures were not taken. A person whose physical or mental impairment is corrected by medication or other measures does not have an impairment that presently 'substantially limits' a major life activity...

The definition of disability also requires that disabilities be evaluated 'with respect to an individual' and be determined based on whether an impairment substantially limits the 'major life activities of such individual'...

We conclude that the complaint was properly dismissed. In reaching that result, we hold that the determination of whether an individual is disabled should be made with reference to measures that mitigate the individual's impairment, including, in this instance, eyeglasses and contact lenses. In addition, we hold that petitioners failed to allege properly that respondent 'regarded' them as having a disability within the meaning of the ADA...

Assuming without deciding that working is a major life activity... petitioners have failed to allege adequately that their poor eyesight is regarded as an impairment that substantially limits them in the major life activity of working. They allege only that respondent regards their poor vision as precluding them from holding positions as a 'global airline pilot'...

Because petitioners have not alleged, and cannot demonstrate, that respondent's vision requirement reflects a belief that petitioners' vision substantially limits them, we agree with the decision of the Court of Appeals affirming the dismissal of petitioners' claim that they are regarded as disabled. For these reasons, the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit is affirmed."
Justice Vote: 2 Pro vs. 7 Con
  • O’Connor, S. Con (Wrote majority opinion
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Ginsburg, R. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Breyer, S. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)

    The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit's judgment; the Supreme Court affirmed the ruling in a 7-2 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.