Casey Martin and the ADA

By Laura F. Rothstein
Health Law & Policy Institute

On February 11, 1998, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin ruled that Casey Martin should be allowed to use a golf cart in Professional Golf Association tournaments. Martin had requested that he be allowed to do so as an exception to the longstanding rule that carts not be allowed. The basis for his request was that a serious circulatory condition, Klippel-Trenauney syndrome, is disabling and makes walking long distances extremely painful. He argued that walking is not an essential requirement of playing professional golf at this level. The Magistrate Judge agreed with Martin's position.

Casey Martin challenged the denial of the cart, claiming that this action violates the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and requires that reasonable accommodations be made. Martin had earlier received a preliminary injunction for one tournament in January, and the Magistrate's decision made the injunction permanent unless the decision is overruled on appeal. The PGA has already indicated its intent to appeal, and an expedited appeal process is anticipated in light of upcoming PGA tournaments affected by this decision.

The case raised and decided several important issues. These included 1) whether his condition is a disability within the ADA; 2) whether the Professional Golf Association tour is subject to Title III of the ADA; 3) whether walking is an essential requirement of PGA level golf competition; and 4) whether the accommodation he requests is reasonable. The Magistrate decided in favor of Martin on all of these issues.

There was not a dispute about whether his condition is a disability, although this may be an issue in future litigation involving golfers with back conditions, heart conditions, respiratory ailments, or other conditions making a cart a desired accommodation. The courts in those cases would have to determine if the conditions were substantially limiting to major life activities, not just minor impairments. It may be that because of the difficulty in making these individualized assessments, the PGA may ultimately decide to allow golf carts to anyone who wants them. This decision, of course, would not occur unless the PGA loses the Martin case on appeal.

Although Martin's condition was considered to be a substantial impairment, it should be noted that there is a disturbing trend by the courts to interpret the definition of "disabled" narrowly, contrary to Congressional intent.

While the PGA argued that Title III of the ADA was not intended to apply to programs such as professional golf, the Magistrate Judge did not agree. The appropriateness of the application may be more obvious if one considers other situations that might arise. If a spectator with a disability were denied access to attend the event because of the disability, certainly that should be protected. There is no reason that other aspects of such an entertainment event should not be covered as well.

Probably the most difficult issue in the case, however, is whether walking and/or stamina are essential aspects of professional golf in that particular event. While walking is a long tradition in this event, and that may account for the number of professional golfers who opposed the accommodation, the Magistrate Judge did not agree that it is essential.

The reasonableness of the accommodation was closely related to the issue of whether walking is an essential function. Because the court determined that it is not an essential function, the golf cart is reasonable. There are, however, other potential issues that could arise with respect to the use of the cart. Although Casey Martin is not requesting to be allowed to have the cart cross the fairway or to be allowed on the putting green, this could become an issue in other cases. In these cases, the program might be more successful in arguing that the cart would so substantially damage the fairway or the green that it could not be allowed in those areas. It is probable, based on other cases involving amateur golf, that the courts would accept those arguments.

What is valuable about this much publicized case is that it highlights disability discrimination law in the context of a very close and compelling case. No one doubts that Casey Martin is seriously affected by his condition and that he does not want to have an unfair advantage. This is not a frivolous case. Professional golf is his life, his work. Perhaps this case will help to gain more positive publicity about the Americans with Disabilities Act. While these cases can be difficult to resolve, they provide important protections for individuals who only want a level playing field.