Supreme Court Rules Workers With Health Risks Can Be Denied Dangerous Jobs; Decision Worries AIDS Advocates
The Supreme Court ruled unaminously yesterday that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require employers to hire workers "whose mental or physical handicap might endanger their own health or safety on the job," the Christian Science Monitor reports (Richey, Christian Science Monitor, 6/11). Writing for the court, Justice David Souter rejected the arguments of disability advocates and upheld a regulation issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission expanding on the ADA. The regulation allows employers to evaluate a worker's potential "threat to self" in making hiring decisions (Greenhouse, New York Times, 6/11). The ruling "makes clear that employers can turn away people who want a job even if they would be risking their lives to do it." It also will "make it easier to fire disabled people who already have jobs that put their health in jeopardy." The decision is the latest in a string of victories for employers and defeats for workers in ADA cases heard by the court (Gearan, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/11).
How We Got Here
Yesterday's decision centered on Mario Echazabal, a former worker for an independent contractor at a Chevron oil refinery in El Segundo, Calif. After Echazabal applied to work directly for the company at the refinery, Chevron made him a conditional offer of employment but then withdrew it after a physical exam revealed that he had hepatitis C, a chronic liver disease. Citing the opinion of medical experts that the job would jeopardize Echazabal's life because it would expose him to toxic chemicals, Chevron revoked its offer and asked the contractor not to let him work in the refinery anymore (Bloomberg News/Washington Times, 6/11). Echazabal then sued under the ADA, stating that Chevron had "unfairly discriminated" against him because of a disability and that "his health was good and that he was capable of doing the job." The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Echazabal, noting that the 1990 statute does not contain a threat to self provision (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 6/11). But Souter wrote, "The EEOC was certainly acting within the reasonable zone when it saw a difference between rejecting workforce paternalism and ignoring specific and documented risks and to the employee himself, even if the employee would take his chances for the sake of getting a job" (MacDonald, Hartford Courant, 6/11). Souter added, however, that companies cannot use broad "stereotypes" to reject disabled applicants but instead must make hiring decisions based on a "reasonable medical judgment of the individual's present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job."
HIV/AIDS Advocates Concerned
Disability advocates, including HIV/AIDS advocates, criticized the decision, saying it would encourage "paternalism" by employers and "encourage [them] to reject job applicants with all manners of disabilities" (Los Angeles Times, 6/11). "I can envision all kinds of scenarios in which employers decide that jobs are too stressful or jobs expose people to all kinds of toxins, and that would be dangerous to people with HIV," American Civil Liberties Union attorney Matthew Cole said (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 6/11). Business groups, on the other hand, "hailed the ruling." Ann Elizabeth Reesman, general counsel of the Equal Employment Advisory Council, called it a "victory for common sense" (Lane, Washington Post, 6/11). Stephen Shapiro, Chevron's lawyer in the case, added, "If employers were told they could not consider the (worker's) risk to self, they would have been in a terrible quandary. They could be faced with hiring people who they know would die on the job. And they would also be exposed to all sorts of litigation." Yesterday's decision marks the court's seventh straight ADA ruling in the past four years in favor of employers. Earlier this year, the court ruled that workers with repetitive stress injuries are not entitled to protections under the ADA, and last month the court said that disability claims cannot trump seniority systems (Los Angeles Times, 6/11). "This obviously is a court that is not reading the ADA as expansively as people in the disability community would like or as major supporters in Congress thought it would be read," Sam Bagenstos, a professor at Harvard Law School who represented Echazabal in the case, said (Washington Post, 6/11). The opinion in Chevron USA Inc. v. Echazabal is available online.