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School Board of Nassau County v. Arline: Pre ADA Case Holds Person With Contagious Disease Could Be Handicapped

In School Board of Nassau County, Florida v. Arline, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed alleged violations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Act). The Court held that a person suffering from a contagious disease, such as tuberculosis, could be handicapped within the meaning of the Act, and that the plaintiff was such a person. The Court remanded the case for a determination of whether the plaintiff was "otherwise qualified for her position."

In 1966, Arline became an elementary school teacher in Nassau County, Florida. Nine years earlier, she had been hospitalized with tuberculosis which was in remission in 1966. For the next twenty years the disease was in remission. In 1977, a culture revealed a relapse of the disease. Cultures taken in March 1978 and November 1978 were also positive. In response to the latter two relapses, the Board suspended Arline with pay for the remainder of the school year. At the end of the 1978-79 school year, Arline was discharged because of "continued reoccurrence [sic] of tuberculosis." After she was denied relief in state administrative proceedings, Arline sued the Board in federal court.

The district court found that although Arline suffered a handicap, she was not a "handicapped person" as defined by the Act. The 11th Circuit reversed, holding that "persons with contagious diseases are within the coverage" of the Act. The 11th Circuit remanded the case, but the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court stated that under the Rehabilitation Act, "no otherwise qualified handicapped individual shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." The Court observed that Congress defined a "handicapped individual" as "any person who (i) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person's major life activities, (ii) has a record of such an impairment, or (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment." The Court noted that this definition reflected Congress' concern with protecting the handicapped against discrimination stemming not only from simple prejudice, but also from "archaic attitudes and laws" and from "the fact that the American people are simply unfamiliar with and insensitive to the difficulties confronting individuals with handicaps. The Court also noted that Congress adopted this expanded definition "to preclude discrimination against a person who has a record of, or is regarded as having, an impairment but who may at present have no actual incapacity at all."

In construing the term "handicapped individual," the Supreme Court turned to the Act's regulations, which provide key definitions. Under the regulations, a "physical impairment" is defined as "any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive, digestive, genitor-urinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine." The regulations also define "major life activities" as "functions such as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working."

The Supreme Court used this statutory and regulatory framework to determine that Arline was a handicapped individual under the Act. First, she had an impairment, as she had a physiological disorder or condition affecting her respiratory system. Second, the impairment was serious enough to require hospitalization, a fact more than sufficient to establish that one or more of her major life activities were substantially limited by her impairment. Third, her hospitalization in 1957 sufficed to establish that she had a record of impairment within the statute. Thus, the Court found she was a handicapped individual.

The Supreme Court addressed the Board's contention that it terminated Arline due to the contagious effects of her disease. The Court refuted this argument, noting that Arline's contagiousness and her physical impairment each resulted from the same underlying condition, tuberculosis. The Court noted that it would be unfair to allow an employer to seize upon the distinction between the effects of a disease on others and the effects of a disease on a patient and use that distinction to justify discriminatory treatment. The Court also stated that "allowing discrimination based on the contagious effects of a physical impairment would be inconsistent with the basis purpose [of the Act], which is to ensure that handicapped individuals are not denied jobs or other benefits because of the prejudiced attitudes or the ignorance of others."

The Supreme Court also addressed whether Arline was "otherwise qualified" to be a teacher. The Court noted that in the context of the employment of a handicapped person with a contagious disease, this determination requires an inquiry into the pertinent facts, based on reasonable medical judgments given the state of medical knowledge. The pertinent facts include (a) the nature of the risk (how the disease will be transmitted), (b) the duration of the risk (how long is the carrier infectious), (c) the severity of the risk (what is the potential harm to third parties), and the probabilities the disease will be transmitted and will cause varying degrees of harm. Further, the Court noted that the next step in the "otherwise qualified" inquiry is an evaluation, in light of these medical findings, whether the employer could reasonably accommodate the employee under the established standards for that inquiry. Because the district court did not perform the required analysis, or develop the pertinent facts, the Supreme Court remanded this issue.

School Board of Nassau County, Florida v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273 (1987).

NOTE: This case was decided under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act provide that Rehabilitation Act cases may be used for guidance under the ADA.