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Jun 2002
15
June 15, 2002

Employer Could Lawfully Refuse to Hire Employee Who Was "Direct Threat" to Himself

Dealing yet another blow to plaintiffs, the Supreme Court has held that an employer who refused to hire an individual because he posed a direct threat to his own safety and health did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). In Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Echazabal, No. 00-1406 (June 10, 2002), the Court upheld the EEOC's "direct threat" regulation which allows an employer to impose a job requirement that an individual not pose a "direct threat" to the health or safety of himself or other individuals in the workplace.

Over the course of 20 years, Mario Echazabal had worked for various independent contractors at a Chevron refinery. In 1992, Echazabal applied for a job in the coker unit but was turned down after one of Chevron's physicians determined Echazabal had a liver problem which would be made worse by exposure to toxins at the refinery. Echazabal continued to work at the refinery for the independent contractor, and again applied for a job with Chevron in 1995. Once again, he was turned down due to his liver problem. Chevron then asked his employer to reassign or remove him from the refinery due to his liver problem. Echazabal sued, claiming discrimination under the ADA. Chevron defended its decision under the EEOC's "direct threat" regulation. Specifically, it argued that Echazabal posed a direct threat to his own health if he worked at the refinery. Reversing the trial court, the federal court of appeals found in favor of Echazabal. It reasoned that the EEOC regulation exceeded its rulemaking authority under the ADA and that the ADA does not apply to employees who pose a threat only to their own health.

Although the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court and held that the ADA permits the EEOC's regulation, employers must be careful if they intend to justify their decisions using the direct threat defense. The Court was careful to note that the ADA prohibits decisions based on paternalistic attitudes or untested and pretextual stereotypes. Under the EEOC's regulation, employers claiming that an individual poses a direct threat must base their decision on "a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge and/or the best available objective evidence," and upon an "individualized assessment of the individual's present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job." This should include consideration of both the likelihood of the risk and the severity of the harm that is predicted.

For more information, contact Rob Dubault at rdubault@wnj.com or call him directly at 231.727.2638.
 

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