The issue in this case was whether the Maine Human Rights Act (“MHRA”), which prohibits employment discrimination based on a physical or mental disability, requires that a plaintiff must show a “substantial limitation on a major life activity” in order to prove a disability. This is the standard under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”); it is also the standard adopted under state anti-discrimination statutes in 43 of the 50 states. The question arises under Maine law because, unlike the federal statute, Maine’s statutory definition of disability does not expressly contain this requirement.
The Maine Human Rights Commission (“MHRC”) promulgated a regulation in 1985 bringing Maine into line with the ADA by requiring a plaintiff to prove a substantial limitation on a major life activity. However, that regulation was attacked in this case as invalid and ultra vires because it allegedly exceeded the Maine Legislature’s intent in the MHRA. The case involved a current employee of Wal-Mart in Maine, who has brought suit under the MHRA claiming that the company discriminated against him when it failed to accommodate his medical condition. He had been in a position that Wal-Mart said required 48-52 hours of work per week and did not allow two consecutive days off during one week. The employee presented Wal-Mart with a physician assistant’s note indicating that, as a result of high blood pressure and heart disease, he could not work more than 45 hours per week and required two consecutive days off each week. Because these limitations did not match the requirements of his position, Wal-Mart required him to give up that job. The company offered him another less stressful job, which he took. The plaintiff then sued in Maine state court under the MHRA. Wal-Mart removed the matter to federal court, which certified to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) the question whether the plaintiff must meet the “substantial limitation” requirement in order to prevail in his suit under Maine law.
In an amicus brief filed on July 1, 2005, NELF, together with co-amici the Maine Chamber of Commerce and others, urged the SJC to uphold the MHRC “substantial limitation” requirement, which would align Maine with the majority of other states and federal law. Amici argued that the majority position preserves a reasonable balance between an employee’s right to non-discriminatory treatment and an employer’s right to protect its own economic interests by making reasonable employment decisions. Amici also argued that upholding the MHRC’s “substantial limitation” regulation would advance the economically desirable goals of national uniformity and predictability of results in employment matters while a rejection of the regulation would create a disincentive for businesses to remain or locate in Maine.
On April 11, 2006, the Maine SJC sided with the plaintiff, deciding 4-3 that the MHRA does not require a showing of substantial limitation on a major life activity to establish a disability. The Court concluded therefore that the MHRC’s regulation was invalid as ultra vires.