The justices said a US appeals court was wrong in ruling that employers must hire disabled workers, even if the job poses a direct threat to their health or safety. The appeals court said employers can require only that the disabled employees not pose a significant risk to others in the workplace.
The high court sided with the company in its interpretation of how the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a federal law that prohibits discrimination against disabled people, applies to the workplace.
“A regulation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission authorizes refusal to hire an individual because his performance on the job would endanger his own health owing to a disability,” Justice David Souter wrote for the court.
He said the Supreme Court held that the 1990 law permits
The case involves Mario Echazabal who, after working at a Chevron coker unit through contractors hired by the company for almost 20 years, applied for a job as a Chevron employee in the unit.
Chevron offered him the job, but a company doctor diagnosed a liver ailment and the company withdrew its offer, saying that the work environment could expose him to liver-damaging contaminants, and, possibly, kill him.
Chevron’s coker unit turns waste oil into usable chemicals, in an atmosphere tinged with acids, solvents, hydrocarbon vapor and other potentially dangerous substances.
Echazabal charged that Chevron was discriminating against him and took the issue to court, arguing that only he should be able to decide how much exposure to the chemicals he should tolerate.
Chevron countered that it feared exposing itself to legal liability if Echazabal got sick, maintaining that a disabled person is not a “qualified individual” who is entitled to the law’s protection if he or she could be made sick by the job.
During oral argument in the case earlier this year (read more at High Court Hears ADA Case ), Echazabal’s lawyer claimed that his client had worked for a subcontractor in the Chevron plant for years without worsening his liver condition.
However, justices seemed concerned that the argument might leave employers with no way to deny a job to someone whose condition might put him in jeopardy.