Defining "Disability" Under the Maine Human Rights Act After Whitney v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
In Whitney v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, sitting as the Law Court, was asked to determine whether the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA) requires plaintiffs alleging disability discrimination to show that their condition substantially limits one or more major life activities. In determining that the MHRA does not require such a showing, the court effectively established that the MHRA was intended to protect a much broader range of medical conditions than its federal counterparts, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehabilitation Act) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). In so doing, the Whitney court invalidated a regulation adopted by the Maine Human Rights Commission that had been in place for nearly twenty years. The primary reasoning articulated by the majority in reaching this decision was that the statutory definition of disability within the MHRA is unambiguous and, by its own terms, includes no qualification of substantiality. Two dissents found ambiguity within the statute and called for deference to the Commission's regulation. This Note considers the history of the MHRA and its construction in both state and federal courts since its promulgation. It looks to the adoption of the Maine Human Rights Commission regulation as a valid and reasonable interpretation of the MRHA and briefly explores the rationale underlying that interpretation. Additionally, it examines the rules of statutory construction practiced by Maine courts and identifies the appropriate deference granted to administrative regulations during the course of such construction. This Note concludes that the Law Court erred when it neglected to recognize the ambiguity within the MHRA's definition of “disability,” and thus failed to give the proper deference to the Commission's interpretation of the statute. Furthermore, this Note argues that, by declaring the regulation void on account of the overwhelming clarity of the statute, the Whitney court stripped employers, practitioners, and courts of any true guidance on what constitutes a disability under Maine law, invalidating years of precedent in the process. Finally, this Note recommends that the Maine Legislature address this lack of guidance by clarifying the statutory definition of disability under the MHRA.
Michael J. Anderson,
Defining "Disability" Under the Maine Human Rights Act After Whitney v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.,
Me. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol59/iss2/10
Civil Rights and Discrimination Commons, Constitutional Law Commons, Disability Law Commons