Whitney v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

Background:
In this case, the Law Court was asked whether the definition of “physical or mental disability” under the Maine Human Rights Act requires a showing of a substantial limitation on a major life activity as does its federal counterpart, the Americans With Disability Act; and whether Section 3.02 (C) of the regulations adopted by the Maine Human Rights Commission is invalid because it requires such a showing.

The MHRA was enacted in 1971 and included no definition of disability. In 1973, the United States Congress adopted a definition of disability that required a showing of a physical and mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of a person’s major life activities. Two years later, the Maine Legislature added a definition of disability to the MHRA, but left out this “substantially limits” language. However, in 1985, the Maine Human Rights Commission adopted Rule 3.02 which defined disability and included the “substantially limits” requirement. The Legislature revised the MHRA in 1991 and made several non-substantive changes to the language to the definition of disability, but failed to incorporate the language of Rule 3.02. 

Court ruling: 
A narrow 4 to 3 majority noted that the Legislature had the opportunity in 1991 to include the more restrictive language of Rule 3.02 in the definition of disability, but failed to do so. Finding no ambiguity in the statutory language, the Court ruled that the MHRA definition of disability does not require a showing of a substantial limitation on one or more major life events and held Rule 3.02 invalid.

The dissent argued that the MHRA’s definition of disability was ambiguous in light of the fact that it consisted of a single run-on paragraph containing 77 words, thirteen commas, and eight “or’s”. They would have deferred to the Maine Human Rights Commission’s interpretation of the MHRA as requiring proof of a substantial limitation. In the dissent’s view, the 1991 Legislature left this language out of the revised definitionbecause it was already included in a rule adopted by the Maine Human Rights Commission.

As a result of this decision, the MHRA has a much broader definition of what constitutes disability than its federal counterpart. The less restrictive definition makes the MHRA applicable to even minor disabilities and will likely lead to a flood of litigation in Maine courts. 

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