By Melanie R. Margolis
One of the most-watched health law decisions handed down by the Supreme Court this term was PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, 121 S. Ct. 1879 (2001), Web-accessible at http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/00-24.ZS.html. It was the case in which a professional golfer with a circulatory disorder wanted to use a golf cart to ride between holes on the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) Tour. The PGA Tour said he could not. The Supreme Court said that under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), he could.
Advocates of disability rights cheered the decision as a hole-in-one for the ADA. The ADA was passed in order to help the 54 million Americans with disabilities lead more productive lives by bringing them into the mainstream, but enforcement of the ADA and acceptance of Americans with disabilities into the mainstream has been a constant struggle. See Former Attorney General Thornburgh Reflects on the Americans with Disabilities Act's Tenth Anniversary at Disabilities/20000228Former.html. A win for the ADA in a case focused on by the media should be good for the ADA. Maybe.
Many people, particularly serious golfers (or so-called golf "purists"), profoundly disagreed with the Supreme Court. In fact, the September 1, 2001 issue of Golf Digest reports the results of a Golfdigest.com survey. The question asked was, "Do you agree with the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Casey Martin?" A majority (52%) of respondents disagreed. Only 47% said they agreed with the decision. See Golf Digest, No. 9, Vol. 52, page 19 (Sept. 1, 2001). You can decide for yourself.
Casey Martin, a professional golfer who qualified for the PGA Tour in 2000, filed suit against the PGA for not allowing him to use a golf cart for play on the tour. The Supreme Court considered whether the ADA protects access to professional golf tournaments by players and whether a competitor with a disability may be denied the use of a golf cart because it would change the nature of the competition fundamentally. Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court, in which Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices OíConnor, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer joined; Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Thomas joined.
Casey Martin suffers from Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, a painful, degenerative circulatory disorder that obstructs blood flow from his right leg back to his heart. Walking not only causes him pain, fatigue, and anxiety, but it also creates a significant risk of hemorrhaging, developing blood clots, and fracturing his tibia. It was clear in this case that Martin has a disability as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA); thus, whether his disability was covered by the ADA was not brought into question in this case. In other cases, whether an individual making a claim under the ADA has a disability for purposes of the ADA may be less obvious. See "Casey Martin and the ADA" by Laura F. Rothstein at Disabilities/980213CaseyMartin.html.
During Martin's college golfing career at Stanford, the conference in which he competed waived for him its rules requiring players to walk and carry their own clubs. When Martin made it to the third stage of the Q-School, the preliminary 3-stage PGA Tour qualifying tournament, his request to use a cart was denied by the PGA, and Martin sued.
Justice Stevens explained at length the process by which any member of the public may enter the Q-School by paying a $3,000 entry fee and submitting 2 letters of recommendation from professional golfers. Golfers progress through various golf tours and tournaments to attempt to become one of about only 42 players to qualify for the PGA Tour. The $3,000 covers greens fees and the cost of golf carts, which are allowed in the first 2 stages of the Q-School, but not in the final stage.
The District Court granted an injunction making it possible for Martin to use a cart in the third stage of Q-School and as a competitor on 2 professional golf tours. The judge determined that Martinís use of the cart did not give him a competitive advantage.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit upheld the decision in favor of Martin, stating that golf courses were places of public accommodation whether used for enjoyment or for earning a living. The PGA had argued that it is exempt from the ADA as a private club and that only the spectator areas were places of public accommodation as defined by the ADA, not the play areas of its tournaments. Because the public both watches and plays in the golf tournaments, however, both spectators and players are covered by the ADA.
The Supreme Court examined the purpose and requirements of the ADA. The ADA prohibits discrimination in employment, public services, and public accommodations. The Court noted that discrimination under the ADA includes the failure to make reasonable modifications in policies or accommodations to individuals with disabilities unless an entity can show that the modification would have "fundamentally altered the nature of," in this case, the golf tournament.
According to the Supreme Court, Martinís use of a cart was a reasonable means of giving him access to the tournaments. The rule requiring the elite golfers to walk was not indispensable to the competition. The modification of using a cart allowed Martin the opportunity to compete in an athletic contest open to members of the public who have the necessary skill and desire, just as the ADA requires. The Supreme Court, after careful consideration of the how golf is played, rejected the PGA's contention that walking was critical.
With regard to the PGAís complaint about the administrative burden of considering golfersí requests to use carts, the Supreme Court noted that Congress must have intended for entities to carefully consider the handful of requests for accommodations rather than to simply deny all requests. Otherwise, why have a law at all? This case should serve as a wake up call to employers and entities providing public services and public accommodations -- requests for accommodations by individuals cannot simply be swept under the rug. These requests must be adequately reviewed and considered. If they are not, those making them will be shouting "Fore," by filing petitions in court.
While Casey Martin scored a hole-in-one in the Supreme Court, it seems clear that the ADA still faces a long par 5 ahead in the court of public opinion. On the other hand, maybe some progress toward at least getting the word out about the ADA is taking place. As ardently as the PGA fought the case against Martin, taking its appeal all the way to the nationís highest court, it is interesting to note that the PGA Web site has a section about the ADA and its application in the golf context, though it does not specifically reference this case. See http://www.pga.com/faq/disabled/index.html.