Bragdon v. Abbott
Annotate this Case
524 U.S. 624 (1998)
OCTOBER TERM, 1997
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 Abbott 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. § 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," § 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.
1. Even though respondent's HIV infection had not progressed to the so-called symptomatic phase, it was a "disability" under § 12102(2)(A), that is, "a physical ... impairment that substantially limits one or more of [an individual's] major life activities." Pp. 630-647.
(a) The ADA definition is drawn almost verbatim from definitions applicable to § 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],"
§ 12201(a), this Court must construe the ADA to grant at least as much protection as the regulations implementing the Rehabilitation Act. Pp. 631-632.
(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. 632-637.
(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. 637-639.
(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 trans-