Supreme Court Hears ADA Worker Safety Case
Supreme Court justices "struggled" Wednesday with an Americans with Disabilities Act case that will determine whether employers can refuse to hire workers for a job that might "endanger their health or life," the Los Angeles Times reports (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 2/28). 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 the chronic liver disorder 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 employers cannot discriminate against a "qualified individual with a disability" except when the prospective employee would represent a "direct threat" to others (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 2/27).
What's At Stake
"The real issue is whether the employer or the employee gets to make the decision" about taking a risk, Stephen Bagenstos, a lawyer for Echazabal, told the court (Biskupic, USA Today, 2/28). The ADA, the landmark 1990 law prohibiting employers from discriminating against "qualified" individuals with disabilities, allows employers not to hire a job applicant that would "pose a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals." The question before the court yesterday was whether this exception also applies to workers who pose a threat to themselves, an issue not explicitly considered in the statute. "We have a business necessity not to hire someone who would be killed in this particular job," Stephen Shapiro, the lawyer representing the employer involved in the case, said (Greenhouse, New York Times, 2/28). Advocates for the disabled say that siding with employers would "convert a law meant to bring people into the career mainstream into license for demeaning corporate paternalism," the Washington Post reports. HIV/AIDS advocates are particularly concerned because they say a ruling in favor of employers could allow them to exclude HIV-positive individuals from positions because they are more susceptible to bacterial and viral infections (Lane, Washington Post, 2/28). Employer groups, on the other hand, say a decision against them could increase their liability risks if a worker becomes injured or dies (USA Today, 2/28).
Back and Forth
While the justices "plainly struggl[ed]" with the case, "some appeared receptive" to Chevron's arguments (USA Today, 2/28). "The question is whether or not in this society it's wrong to say an employer should care about its employees," Justice Anthony Kennedy said, adding to Echazabal's lawyer, "Your argument is very demeaning to a society that wants to encourage good conduct on the part of its employers. You want the employer to take a position that's completely barbarous" (New York Times, 2/28). But noting that Echazabal worked in the oil refinery for two decades before Chevron withdrew its offer, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, "It's hard to say he was not qualified when he worked there for more than 20 years." And responding to Chevron lawyer Shapiro's argument that some workers might choose to risk serious injury or death in a job and thus put employers at liability risk, Justice Stephen Breyer said, "Most people don't want to kill themselves" (Los Angeles Times, 2/28). However, several justices suggested that Echazabal's lawyers were asking to declare a broad rule for the ADA based on someone who "may be a rare individual who is seriously ill but capable of doing the job" that could "force employers to accept people for whom the health risks are great" (Washington Post, 2/28). Chevron was supported by the Bush administration in part, as Lisa Blatt, an assistant solicitor general, noted that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has agreed with Chevron's interpretation of the ADA (New York Times, 2/28). "The mere fact that the employee consents to risk doesn't trump the employer's interest," Blatt said. A decision in Chevron v. Echazabal is expected by July (USA Today, 2/28).