June 10, 2002
By CHARLES LANE
Washington - The Supreme Court ruled Monday that an employer may refuse to hire a disabled worker when it determines the job would threaten the worker's life or health.
The ruling is the latest in a series of recent decisions by the court limiting the impact of the Americans With Disabilities Act in the workplace.
Chevron, the company in question, had refused to give a job in its El Segundo, Calif., oil refinery to Mario Echazabal, who has hepatitis C, a chronic liver disease, based on its view that airborne toxins in the plant would make his liver worse and could kill him. Echazabal insisted that he was the best judge of the risk to himself, and he sued Chevron for job discrimination under the ADA.
A federal appeals court had ruled in Echazabal's favor, but the court voted 9-0 to side with the company, holding that Echazabal's claim was barred by an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulation that was, in turn, based on a reasonable interpretation of the disabilities act.
"Chevron's reasons for calling the regulation reasonable are unsurprising," Justice David Souter wrote in the opinion for the court. "Moral concerns aside, it wishes to avoid time lost to sickness, excessive turnover from medical retirement or death, litigation under state tort law, and the risk of violating" federal occupational-safety laws.
Business groups hailed the ruling, which was the third time since October that the justices had sided with a company in an ADA employment discrimination case. The Bush administration also had backed Chevron.
"This was a victory for common sense," said Ann Elizabeth Reesman, general counsel of the Equal Employment Advisory Council, a business group. "It was pretty clear the court thought so, too."
Daniel Kaplan, an employment law specialist in the Madison office of Foley & Lardner, said the ruling should be a relief to employers.
"You can make an employment decision based on what you the employer interprets as a reasonable risk of harm," Kaplan said. "I think that's very important to employers in Wisconsin, especially with rising worker's compensation costs and other costs of that sort."
Kaplan said the ruling in the Chevron case did not contradict a 1991 Supreme Court decision in a case involving Glendale-based Johnson Controls Inc.
In that case, the court unanimously struck down a 1982 Johnson Controls policy that banned women of child-bearing age - unless they could prove infertility - from certain jobs that exposed them to lead used in the company's battery division. The company had expressed concern about its legal liabilities if pregnant women or their children developed health problems from lead exposure.
The difference between that case and the ruling Monday was the difference between possible and likely risks, Kaplan said.
ADA takes third hit
Disability rights advocates said that with Monday's decision, the court had accepted a paternalistic view of the company-worker relationship that runs counter to the letter and spirit of the ADA. They had argued that the text of the statute permits companies to deny work only to those who would pose a "direct threat" to others, and that the EEOC regulations had distorted the intent of the law's drafters.
"This is obviously 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, and this case is just another example of that," said Sam Bagenstos, a professor at Harvard Law School who represented Echazabal before the court.
Earlier this term, the court, also by a vote of 9-0, held that the ADA, which defines disability as an impairment that limits "major life activities," does not protect workers with conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome that might hinder them on an assembly line but not in other tasks "central" to life.
By a 5-4 vote, the justices ruled that private-company seniority plans normally trump the ADA when it comes to finding jobs to accommodate disabled employees.
Echazabal had worked for a Chevron subcontractor in the coker unit from 1972 to 1992, except for a three-year break. He applied for a job with Chevron itself in 1992 and was initially hired, only to be turned down when a mandatory medical exam revealed the liver disease.
He continued to work for the subcontractor, apparently without harm to his health, until 1995, when he again applied to Chevron. This time, the company not only rescinded a job offer based on his condition but also urged the subcontractor to bar him from the refinery.
Reduced to part-time work driving a school bus, Echazabal sued Chevron in early 1997.
A federal district judge sided with Chevron, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit sided with Echazabal, noting the ADA speaks only of an employer's right to exclude workers who might pose "a direct threat" to others.
But in his opinion Monday, Souter argued that although the ADA specifies only one defense with which companies can fight discrimination charges, other defenses are not excluded.
Joel Dresang of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
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