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U.S. Supreme Court Expands Employers’ Defense to ADA Suits

Volume 1, Issue 8
August 22, 2002

High Court Finds that EEOC Regulations are Valid and That Individuals Who Present Dangers to Themselves Are Not Qualified Individuals Under the Americans With Disabilities Act

In a recent favorable decision to employers, the Supreme Court has ruled on whether an employee can be considered "otherwise qualified" within the meaning of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) if the individual's disability poses a direct threat to his or her own health and safety on the job.

The plaintiff, Mario Echazabal, worked for independent contractors at one of Chevron's oil refineries and then tried to apply for a job with Chevron directly. Chevron refused to hire him because of a liver condition revealed during a pre-employment physical that doctors said would be exacerbated by continued exposure to toxins at the refinery. Echazabal filed suit under the ADA, and Chevron asserted what is known as the "direct threat" defense. Under the ADA, an employer may not discriminate against an "otherwise qualified individual with a disability." However, the ADA further states that an individual is not "otherwise qualified" if the individual poses a "direct threat to the health and safety of other individuals in the workplace." In its defense, Chevron relied upon regulations promulgated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that broadened the "direct threat" defense to include those individuals who pose a threat to their own health and safety. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Chevron, stating that the EEOC regulations were invalid because they contradicted principles of statutory interpretation and the intent of Congress when it passed the ADA.

Upon review, a unanimous Supreme Court determined that principles of statutory interpretation and Congress' intent did not, in fact, preclude the EEOC regulations, but rather held that the EEOC was acting well within its authority. As a result of the decision, employers within the Ninth Circuit, including those in Nevada, may now avail themselves of the "direct threat" defense when a disabled employee poses a direct threat to his own health and safety while on the job -- not just when an employee poses a threat to others. Of course, employers should be mindful that they must always base their evaluation of a potential threat upon "a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge and/or the best available objective evidence" if they are to avoid liability under the ADA.

Chevron USA, Inc. v. Echazabal, Case No. 00-1406 (June 10, 2002).

Employer Report articles are for general information only; they are not intended and should not be construed to be legal advice. Reading or replying to such articles does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In addition, because the subject matters and applicable laws discussed in Employer Report articles are often in a state of change and not always applicable to every type of business entity or organization, readers should consult with counsel before making decisions based on the same.