Can a disabled worker put himself at risk?

Court hears case of worker who wants a job that, employer says, could prove fatal.

An oil refinery worker is diagnosed with a liver condition and is told that his continued employment around toxic chemicals may prove fatal.

Regardless of the risk to his health, he wants to continue working in the refinery. Managers decide that, for his own good, he must find work elsewhere.

After losing his job, the worker sues under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The suit claims that the company excluded him from a job he is capable of performing based on insufficient medical data and their own fears and stereotypes about his condition.

The worker's name is Mario Echazabal. For nearly 20 years he was a productive and respected worker at the Chevron refinery in El Segundo, Calif.

Now he drives a school bus part time. But what he really wants is a job at the refinery.

Today, the US Supreme Court takes up Mr. Echazabal's case and confronts the difficult question of whether US disability law requires employers to hire disabled workers even when the job they want may harm or even kill them.

Legal analysts say that in light of the high court's restrictive view of the ADA in recent employment rulings, Echazabal's case marks a crossroads for the landmark civil rights law.

To disability rights' advocates, the case is a critical opportunity for the high court to endorse what they say is one of the centerpieces of the ADA: that disabled individuals, rather than company managers, are empowered to decide on their own about work risks they may face on the job.

To business and industry groups, such an approach is a recipe for a blizzard of liability and other lawsuits filed by injured or sick workers against companies forced to ignore serious health and safety concerns.

"Employers should not be placed in the dilemma of [either] hiring workers who will be hurt or killed doing the job, or violating the ADA," says Stephen Shapiro in his brief to the court filed on behalf of Chevron.

Lawyers for Chevron argue that Echazabal is not entitled to the protections of the disability law because he is not qualified for the job, as required by the ADA. "The ordinary meaning of 'qualified' does not encompass a person whose medical condition means that he would be seriously endangered by the job," Mr. Shapiro writes.

Past performance

Echazabal's lawyer counters that his past performance demonstrates that he is fully capable of performing the job. "The chance that he might, at some indeterminate point in the future, become unable to perform those tasks because of a workplace illness simply has no place in the 'qualified individual' inquiry," says Larry Minsky in Echazabal's brief to the court.

The other major issue in the case involves the ADA's wording.

The law permits companies to reject disabled workers who might pose "a significant risk to the health or safety of others." But the law does not address whether companies may also reject disabled workers who might pose a significant risk to their own health and safety.

Lawyers for Chevron say the law is ambiguous and that the justices should look to the wording used in regulations passed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC regulations permit companies to reject disabled job applicants who pose a risk to others or themselves.

Lawyers for Echazabal counter that the law is clear. Employers can reject disabled job applicants only when they pose a threat to others.

Disability activists say that by leaving the decision over job risk to the individual, Congress created a mechanism to prevents the kind of paternalistic employer stereotypes and fears that previously kept many disabled individuals outside the workforce.

Mr. Minsky says there is no question that Echazabal has a liver condition. But, he says, Chevron never conducted the necessary medical tests to determine whether he could safely handle the amount of toxins that he might encounter.

"If they had conducted those tests they would know that Mario is no more at risk than you or I," Minsky says.

Instead, he says, his client lost his job based on medical and scientific data that were incomplete and misleading. Refinery managers acted out of an unfounded fear that Echazabal might die, he says.

Lawyers for Chevron say the company acted on the best medical and scientific information it had at the time.

Peter Blanck, director of the Law, Health Policy, and Disability Center at the University of Iowa College of Law in Iowa City, says such information is rarely more than an educated guess.

Sound information?

Business and industry groups counter that such employment decisions are based on sound medical information and expert opinions - an accepted means of assessing risks.

"If someone with acrophobia wants to be an iron worker and there is medical evidence that people with acrophobia can faint and lose their balance in high places, just because the worker says I can handle it, I'm not sure that is the end of the inquiry," says Fred Alvarez, a Palo Alto lawyer who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Employers Group, a large business association based in California.

A decision in the case, Chevron v. Echazabal, is expected by late June.

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