Supreme Court Seeks Justice Department Input on Disability Case

June 18, 2001 ( - The US Supreme Court has sought the Justice Department's opinion on the reach of the federal law that prohibits discrimination against the disabled.

The court is hearing a case in which it must decide whether, under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, employers may refuse to hire disabled individuals who cannot carry out essential job functions without risking life or limb.


The case involved Mario Echazabel, who worked in a Chevron refinery where he was employed through a contractor. He applied to work directly for Chevron as a plant helper, but was rejected once the company learned that he had been diagnosed with a chronic form of hepatitis.

The company also asked the contractor to remove the worker from the refinery, on the grounds that his exposure to liver-toxic solvents and chemicals may exacerbate his condition or lead to his death.

Echazabal sued, charging that Chevron discriminated against him based on his disability. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, but the decision was overturned on appeal.

Echazabal’s lawyers charge that the appeal should be denied, saying that the company has never presented any evidence that his medical condition rendered him unable to perform the tasks required for the job.


Chevron, interpreting the ruling to mean that an employer cannot deny a job handling dangerous machinery to an epileptic who suffers uncontrollable seizures, argued that the court’s ruling would force employers to be unwilling participants in the injuries suffered by disabled workers.

The court ruled that employers could only require that disabled employees not pose a significant risk to others in the workplace, stating that the intention of the law was to afford disabled persons the opportunity to decide for themselves what risk to take.

Chevron countered that the ruling conflicted with decisions by other federal appeals courts and overrode the regulations of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for carrying out the law’s employment provisions.

The Justice Department is expected to provide a brief in the next several months and it is anticipated that the Supreme Court will decide whether it will hear the case during its next term, which begins in October.

– Camilla Klein