Supreme Court to Hear Case on Workplace Health Risks Under ADA; Hepatitis, HIV Advocates ‘Closely Following’ Case
The Supreme Court will hear arguments today in a case that will determine whether the Americans with Disabilities Act allows companies or employees "to decide whether a workplace represents a danger to a worker's health," the Los Angeles Times reports. The case centers around Mario Echazabal, a Los Angeles man who worked for a private contractor at a Chevron Corp. oil refinery beginning in 1972. In 1995, Echazabal was hired in a full-time position by Chevron, pending the results of a physical exam. When a company doctor discovered that Echazabal had hepatitis C, Chevron withdrew its offer and barred him from the plant, "claiming that exposure to chemicals and solvents there could endanger his health." A federal judge rejected a lawsuit brought by Echazabal alleging that Chevron's actions violated the ADA by discriminating against him because of his condition. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision, noting that the ADA states that businesses cannot discriminate against a "qualified individual with a disability" except when the prospective employee would represent a "direct threat" to others (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 2/26).
HIV and hepatitis advocates are "closely following" the case (Biskupic, USA Today, 2/27). They say that individuals with medical conditions, including HIV or heart ailments, should not be excluded from employment based on employer fears that the workplace could expose them to harm. "Every job involves some risks, and the question is: 'Do we let people make those risk assessments for themselves, or do we let employers decide?,'" Matthew Coles, head of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, asked. Employers, on the other hand, believe that a Supreme Court ruling in Echazabal's favor could open them up to liability if a worker's condition deteriorates, despite assurances from Echazabal's attorneys that businesses that take "all reasonable steps" to warn an employee of a possible health risk cannot be held at fault if that employee later becomes ill or dies. "This puts employers in a terrible dilemma. No matter what they say, employers are going to look guilty if they put someone in a job who later suffers severe injury," Fred Alvarez, a California attorney who filed a brief on behalf of the Employers Group, a coalition of California companies, said. The Times reports that the Supreme Court has been "decidedly skeptical" of employees' claims based on the ADA recently (Los Angeles Times, 2/26). In January, the court ruled that people must have "substantial limitations" on activities "central to daily life," not only in the workplace, to qualify as disabled under the ADA. The decision made it more difficult for workers to demonstrate that they are entitled to an accommodation by their employers under the law (American Health Line, 1/9). NPR's "Morning Edition" today features analysis of the case. The full segment will be available in RealPlayer Audio online after noon ET (Totenberg, "Morning Edition," NPR, 2/27).