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Bragdon v. Abbott

June 25, 1998

RANDON BRAGDON, PETITIONER V. SIDNEY ABBOTT ET AL.


On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The First Circuit

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Syllabus

OCTOBER TERM, 1997

BRAGDON v. ABBOTT

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

BRAGDON v. ABBOTT et al.

Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The First Circuit

No. 97-156.

Argued March 30, 1998

Decided June 25, 1998

Respondent is infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), but had not manifested its most serious symptoms when the incidents in question occurred. At that time, she went to petitioner's office for a dental examination and disclosed her HIV infection. Petitioner discovered a cavity and informed respondent of his policy against filling cavities of HIV-infected patients in his office. He offered to perform the work at a hospital at no extra charge, though respondent would have to pay for use of the hospital's facilities. She declined and filed suit under, inter alia, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against any individual "on the basis of disability in the ... enjoyment of the ... services ... of any place of public accommodation by any person who ... operates [such] a place," 42 U. S. C. Section 12182(a), but qualifies the prohibition by providing: "Nothing [herein] shall require an entity to permit an individual to participate in or benefit from the ... accommodations of such entity where such individual poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others," Section 12182(b)(3). The District Court granted respondent summary judgment. The First Circuit affirmed, agreeing with the lower court that respondent's HIV was a disability under the ADA even though her infection had not yet progressed to the symptomatic stage, and that treating her in petitioner's office would not have posed a direct threat to the health and safety of others. In making the latter ruling, the court relied on the 1993 Dentistry Guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and on the 1991 American Dental Association Policy on HIV.

Held:

1. Even though respondent's HIV infection had not progressed to the so-called symptomatic phase, it was a "disability" under Section 12102(2)(A), that is, "a physical ... impairment that substantially limits one or more of [an individual's] major life activities." Pp. 3-21.

(a) The ADA definition is drawn almost verbatim from definitions applicable to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and another federal statute. Because the ADA expressly provides that "nothing [herein] shall be construed to apply a lesser standard than ... under ... the Rehabilitation Act ... or the regulations issued ... pursuant to [it]," Section 12201(a), this Court must construe the ADA to grant at least as much protection as the regulations implementing the Rehabilitation Act. Pp. 4-5.

(b) From the moment of infection and throughout every stage of the disease, HIV infection satisfies the statutory and regulatory definition of a "physical impairment." Applicable Rehabilitation Act regulations define "physical or mental impairment" to mean "any physiological disorder or condition ... affecting ... the ... body['s] ... hemic and lymphatic [systems]." HIV infection falls well within that definition. The medical literature reveals that the disease follows a predictable and unalterable course from infection to inevitable death. It causes immediate abnormalities in a person's blood, and the infected person's white cell count continues to drop throughout the course of the disease, even during the intermediate stage when its attack is concentrated in the lymph nodes. Thus, HIV infection must be regarded as a physiological disorder with an immediate, constant, and detrimental effect on the hemic and lymphatic systems. Pp. 4-10.

(c) The life activity upon which respondent relies, her ability to reproduce and to bear children, constitutes a "major life activity" under the ADA. The plain meaning of the word "major" denotes comparative importance and suggests that the touchstone is an activity's significance. Reproduction and the sexual dynamics surrounding it are central to the life process itself. Petitioner's claim that Congress intended the ADA only to cover those aspects of a person's life that have a public, economic, or daily character founders on the statutory language. Nothing in the definition suggests that activities without such a dimension may somehow be regarded as so unimportant or insignificant as not to be "major." This interpretation is confirmed by the Rehabilitation Act regulations, which provide an illustrative, nonexhaustive list of major life activities. Inclusion on that list of activities such as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, working, and learning belies the suggestion that a task must have a public or economic character. On the contrary, the regulations support the inclusion of reproduction, which could not be regarded as any less important than working and learning. Pp. 10-12.

(d) Respondent's HIV infection "substantially limits" her major life activity within the ADA's meaning. Although the Rehabilitation Act regulations provide little guidance in this regard, the Court's evaluation of the medical evidence demonstrates that an HIV-infected woman's ability to reproduce is substantially limited in two independent ways: If she tries to conceive a child, (1) she imposes on her male partner a statistically significant risk of becoming infected; and (2) she risks infecting her child during gestation and childbirth, i.e., perinatal transmission. Evidence suggesting that antiretroviral therapy can lower the risk of perinatal transmission to about 8%, even if relevant, does not avail petitioner because it cannot be said as a matter of law that an 8% risk of transmitting a dread and fatal disease to one's child does not represent a substantial limitation on reproduction. The decision to reproduce carries economic and legal consequences as well. There are added costs for antiretroviral therapy, supplemental insurance, and long-term health care for the child who must be examined and treated. Some state laws, moreover, forbid HIV-infected persons from having sex with others, regardless of consent. In the context of reviewing summary judgment, the Court must take as true respondent's unchallenged testimony that her HIV infection controlled her decision not to have a child. Pp. 12-15.

(e) The uniform body of administrative and judicial precedent interpreting similar language in the Rehabilitation Act confirms the Court's holding. Every agency and court to consider the issue under the Rehabilitation Act has found statutory coverage for persons with asymptomatic HIV. The uniformity of that precedent is significant. When administrative and judicial interpretations have settled the meaning of an existing statutory provision, repetition of the same language in a new statute indicates, as a general matter, Congress' intent to incorporate such interpretations as well. See, e.g., Lorillard v. Pons, 434 U. S. 575, 580-581. Pp. 15-19.

(f) The Court's holding is further reinforced by the guidance issued by the Justice Department and other agencies authorized to administer the ADA, which supports the Conclusion that persons with asymptomatic HIV fall within the ADA's definition of disability. The views of agencies charged with implementing a statute are entitled to deference. See Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U. S. 837, 844. Pp. 19-21.

2. In affirming the summary judgment, the First Circuit did not cite sufficient material in the record to determine, as a matter of law, that respondent's HIV infection posed no direct threat to the health and safety of others. The ADA's direct threat provision, Section 12182(b)(3), stems from School Bd. of Nassau Cty. v. Arline, 480 U. S. 273, 287, in which this Court reconciled competing interests in prohibiting discrimination and preventing the spread of disease by construing the Rehabilitation Act not to require the hiring of a person who posed "a significant risk of communicating an infectious disease to others," id., at 287, and n. 16. The existence of a significant risk is determined from the standpoint of the health care professional who refuses treatment or accommodation, and the risk assessment is based on the medical or other objective, scientific evidence available to him and his profession, not simply on his good-faith belief that a significant risk existed. See id., at 288; id., at 288, n. 18, distinguished. For the most part, the First Circuit followed the proper standard and conducted a thorough review of the evidence. However, it might have mistakenly relied on the 1993 CDC Dentistry Guidelines, which recommend certain universal precautions to combat the risk of HIV transmission in the dental environment, but do not actually assess the level of such risk, and on the 1991 American Dental Association Policy on HIV, which is the work of a professional organization, not a public health authority, and which does not reveal the extent to which it was based on the Association's assessment of dentists' ethical and professional duties, rather than scientific assessments. Other evidence in the record might support affirmance of the trial court's ruling, and there are reasons to doubt whether petitioner advanced evidence sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact on the significance of the risk, but this Court's evaluation is constrained by the fact that it has not had briefs and arguments directed to the entire record. A remand will permit a full exploration of the issues through the adversary process. Pp. 21-29.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kennedy

Opinion of the Court

BRAGDON v. ABBOTT

____ U. S. ____ (1998)

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.

We address in this case the application of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 104 Stat. 327, 42 U. S. C. Section 12101 et seq., to persons infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). We granted certiorari to review, first, whether HIV infection is a disability under the ADA when the infection has not yet progressed to the so-called symptomatic phase; and, second, whether the Court of Appeals, in affirming a grant of summary judgment, cited sufficient material in the record to determine, as a matter of law, that respondent's infection with HIV posed no direct threat to the health and safety of her treating dentist.

I.

Respondent Sidney Abbott has been infected with HIV since 1986. When the incidents we recite occurred, her infection had not manifested its most serious symptoms. On September 16, 1994, she went to the office of petitioner Randon Bragdon in Bangor, Maine, for a dental appointment. She disclosed her HIV infection on the patient registration form. Petitioner completed a dental examination, discovered a cavity, and informed respondent of his policy against filling cavities of HIV-infected patients. He offered to perform the work at a hospital with no added fee for his services, though respondent would be responsible for the cost of using the hospital's facilities. Respondent declined.

Respondent sued petitioner under state law and Section 302 of the ADA, 104 Stat. 355, 42 U. S. C. Section 12182, alleging discrimination on the basis of her disability. The state law claims are not before us. Section 302 of the ADA provides:

"No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who ... operates a place of public accommodation." Section 12182(a).

The term "public accommodation" is defined to include the "professional office of a health care provider." Section 12181(7)(F).

A later subsection qualifies the mandate not to discriminate. It provides:

"Nothing in this subchapter shall require an entity to permit an individual to participate in or benefit from the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations of such entity where such individual poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others." Section 12182(b)(3).

The United States and the Maine Human Rights Commission intervened as plaintiffs. After discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The District Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, holding that respondent's HIV infection satisfied the ADA's definition of disability. 912 F. Supp. 580, 585-587 (Me. 1995). The court held further that petitioner raised no genuine issue of material fact as to whether respondent's HIV infection would have posed a direct threat to the health or safety of others during the course of a dental treatment. Id., at 587-591. The court relied on affidavits submitted by Dr. Donald Wayne Marianos, Director of the Division of Oral Health of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Marianos affidavits asserted it is safe for dentists to treat patients infected with HIV in dental offices if the dentist follows the so-called universal precautions described in the Recommended Infection-Control Practices for Dentistry issued by CDC in 1993 (1993 CDC Dentistry Guidelines). 912 F. Supp., at 589.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. It held respondent's HIV infection was a disability under the ADA, even though her infection had not yet progressed to the symptomatic stage. 107 F. 3d 934, 939-943 (CA1 1997). The Court of Appeals also agreed that treating the respondent in petitioner's office would not have posed a direct threat to the health and safety of others. Id., at 943-948. Unlike the District Court, however, the Court of Appeals declined to rely on the Marianos affidavits. Id., at 946, n. 7. Instead the court relied on the 1993 CDC Dentistry Guidelines, as well as the Policy on AIDS, HIV Infection and the Practice of Dentistry, promulgated by the American Dental Association in 1991 (1991 American Dental Association Policy on HIV). 107 F. 3d, at 945-946.

II.

We first review the ruling that respondent's HIV infection constituted a disability under the ADA. The statute defines disability as:

"(A)a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual;

"(B)a record of such an impairment; or

"(C)being regarded as having such impairment." Section 12102(2).

We hold respondent's HIV infection was a disability under subsection (A) of the definitional section of the statute. In light of this Conclusion, we need not consider the applicability of subsections (B) or (C).

Our consideration of subsection (A) of the definition proceeds in three steps. First, we consider whether respondent's HIV infection was a physical impairment. Second, we identify the life activity upon which respondent relies (reproduction and child bearing) and determine whether it constitutes a major life activity under the ADA. Third, tying the two statutory phrases together, we ask whether the impairment substantially limited the major life activity. In construing the statute, we are informed by interpretations of parallel definitions in previous statutes and the views of various administrative agencies which have faced this interpretive question.

A.

The ADA's definition of disability is drawn almost verbatim from the definition of "handicapped individual" included in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U. S. C. Section 706(8)(B) (1988 ed.), and the definition of "handicap" contained in the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, 42 U. S. C. Section 3602(h)(1) (1988 ed.). Congress' repetition of a well-established term carries the implication that Congress intended the term to be construed in accordance with pre-existing regulatory interpretations. See FDIC v. Philadelphia Gear Corp., 476 U. S. 426, 437-438 (1986); Commissioner v. Estate of Noel, 380 U. S. 678, 681-682 (1965); ICC v. Parker, 326 U. S. 60, 65 (1945). In this case, Congress did more than suggest this construction; it adopted a specific statutory provision in the ADA directing as follows:

"Except as otherwise provided in this chapter, nothing in this chapter shall be construed to apply a lesser standard than the standards applied under title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U. S. C. 790 et seq.) or the regulations issued by Federal agencies pursuant to such title." 42 U. S. C. Section 12201(a).

The directive requires us to construe the ADA to grant at least as much protection as provided by the regulations implementing the Rehabilitation Act.

1.

The first step in the inquiry under subsection (A) requires us to determine whether respondent's condition constituted a physical impairment. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) issued the first regulations interpreting the Rehabilitation Act in 1977. The regulations are of particular significance because, at the time, HEW was the agency responsible for coordinating the implementation and enforcement of Section 504. Consolidated Rail Corporation v. Darrone, 465 U. S. 624, 634, (1984) (citing Exec. Order No. 11914, 3 CFR 117 (1976-1980 Comp.)). The HEW regulations, which appear without change in the current regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, define "physical or mental impairment" to mean:

"(A)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, genito-urinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine; or

"(B)any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities." 45 CFR Section 84.3(j)(2)(i) (1997).

In issuing these regulations, HEW decided against including a list of disorders constituting physical or mental impairments, out of concern that any specific enumeration might not be comprehensive. 42 Fed. Reg. 22685 (1977), reprinted in 45 CFR pt. 84, App. A, p. 334 (1997). The commentary accompanying the regulations, however, contains a representative list of disorders and conditions constituting physical impairments, including "such diseases and conditions as orthopedic, visual, speech, and hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental retardation, emotional illness, and ... drug addiction and alcoholism." Ibid.

In 1980, the President transferred responsibility for the implementation and enforcement of Section 504 to the Attorney General. See, e.g., Exec. Order No. 12250, 3 CFR 298 (1981). The regulations issued by the Justice Department, which remain in force to this day, adopted verbatim the HEW definition of physical impairment quoted above. 28 CFR Section 41.31(a)(1) (1997). In addition, the representative list of diseases and conditions originally ...


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