Court puts limits on disability protections in workplace

Justices unanimously side with businesses in a dispute over workers who might endanger their own health.

Employers are not required under US civil rights laws to hire disabled workers whose mental or physical handicap might endanger their own health or safety on the job.

In a major decision restricting the scope of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the US Supreme Court has ruled that Congress did not intend to force employers to hire workers with disabilities that might pose a direct threat to others as well as to themselves in the workplace.

Instead, Congress left the issue open for interpretation by federal agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to enact regulations addressing such questions.

Existing EEOC regulations do not entitle disabled workers to sue an employer for alleged job discrimination when the worker's own health or safety may be in jeopardy on the job. To the justices, there is no difference between a worker who threatens his or her own health and one who is clearly a risk to others.

"If Typhoid Mary had come under the ADA, would a meat packer have been defenseless if Mary had sued after being turned away?" asks Justice David Souter, writing for the court in a 13-page decision.

The unanimous decision announced yesterday is only the most recent of a string of high-court opinions making it harder for disabled workers to claim the protections of the ADA.

Setback for disability rights

It marks a significant setback for disability-rights activists, who argued that the ADA was aimed at overcoming paternalistic employment policies that might exclude the disabled from the workforce out of an abundance of caution. They say that to overcome such policies rooted in false fears and stereotypes, the ADA was written to empower the disabled employee to make the critical decision whether to accept a job that might prove dangerous or even fatal.

The justices viewed the issue differently, ruling that EEOC regulations establish that a legitimate qualification standard for any job is the ability to perform routine job-related tasks without endangering one's life, health, or safety.

"The EEOC's resolution exemplifies the substantive choices that agencies are expected to make when Congress leaves the intersection of competing objectives both imprecisely marked but subject to ... administrative leeway," Justice Souter writes.

The decision stems from the case of Mario Echazabal, who was fired from his job at the Chevron oil refinery at El Segundo, Calif., after plant managers discovered that he had a liver condition diagnosed as Hepatitis C.

Mr. Echazabal had worked more than 20 years in the refinery and was capable of performing all necessary tasks related to his job. But medical experts hired by Chevron said Echazabal's liver condition rendered him particularly vulnerable to solvents and other toxic substances used at the refinery. They said continued exposure could threaten his life.

Echazabal disagreed. His own experts said the risk was overstated.

In March 1996, he filed a lawsuit under the ADA, claiming he had been illegally excluded from the refinery workforce because of his disability, the liver condition.

Chevron, citing the EEOC regulation, argued that he was not qualified to perform the work since merely showing up at the job site might kill him. They said performing the work safely – without risk to one's health – is a qualification for the job.

A threat to oneself

Echazabal countered that although the ADA requires that disabled workers not pose a threat to others on the job, the law does not exclude those who might pose a threat to themselves.

He says Congress left it to individual disabled workers to decide for themselves in consultation with their own physicians and other experts whether they want to accept any potential on-the-job risks.

In siding with Chevron, the court said requiring employers to retain workers who are potentially dangerous would open the firm up to lawsuits and other hardships. "Chevron's reasons for calling the [EEOC] regulation reasonable are unsurprising," writes Souter. "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 the national Occupational Safety and Health Act."

The decision marks the fourth time in recent years that the court has narrowed the scope of the ADA. In 1999, the justices ruled that the ADA does not apply to individuals whose disability can be mitigated or corrected through drugs or special equipment like eyeglasses or hearing aids.

In January, the court ruled that a person's inability to perform certain job-related tasks was not enough to trigger ADA coverage. Instead, the person's disability must be so severe as to limit the performance of tasks central to most people's daily lives, such as doing household chores.

In late April, the court ruled that the ADA did not necessarily trump a company's seniority system to accommodate disabled workers seeking jobs that are less physically challenging.

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