A Threat To One's Self Is Enough
The Americans with Disability Act of 1990 (the "ADA") prohibits employers from using qualification standards that screen out or that have a tendency to screen out an individual with a disability or a class of individuals with disabilities. The ADA permits, however, employers to disqualify an individual whose employment creates a "direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals in the workplace." The Act is silent on whether the concept of direct threat includes situations in which a potential employee poses a risk to himself or herself. On June 10, 2002, in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Echazabal, 122 S. Ct. 2045 (2002), the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that an employer does not violate the ADA when it refuses to hire an applicant seeking employment that would adversely affect the applicant's own health or safety.
Mario Echazabal worked for an independent contractor at a Chevron owned oil refinery for over 20 years. While working at Chevron's refinery as a contract employee, Echazabal twice applied for a position directly with the company, and each time he was told that his hiring was contingent upon the results of a physical examination. Echazabal failed both examinations because the exams showed that he had liver abnormalities, the cause eventually being identified as Hepatitis C, which Chevron's doctors said would be aggravated by continued exposure to toxins at the company's refinery. After the second failure, Chevron asked the contractor to either reassign Echazabal to another position that would not expose him to harmful chemicals, or remove him from his position at the refinery altogether. Echazabal was later terminated and, thereafter, filed a lawsuit against Chevron alleging that the company violated the ADA by refusing to hire him because of his disability.
As a defense to Echazabal's allegation, Chevron cited a regulation from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), which provides authority for employers to deny employment to individuals whose physical conditions pose a direct threat to themselves. At trial, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Chevron. On appeal, however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court's judgment and held that employers may not deny a position to an applicant based on the risk that the employment would adversely affect the applicant's own health or safety. Chevron appealed the Ninth Circuit's decision to the United States Supreme Court.
Supreme Court's Holding:
The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit's decision and held that the ADA does not preclude the harm-to-self regulation (i.e., employers may disqualify an individual who presents a direct threat to his own health or safety). The Court rejected the argument that the EEOC's regulation constituted the kind of workplace paternalism that the ADA was meant to outlaw.
Rather, the Court found that, "the EEOC was certainly acting within the reasonable zone when it saw difference between rejecting workplace paternalism and ignoring specific and documented risks to the employee himself, even if the employee would take his chances for the sake of getting a job." The Court cautioned that, "the direct threat defense must be based on a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge and/or the best available objective evidence, and upon an expressly individualized assessment of the individual's present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job, reached after considering, among other things, the imminence of the risk and the severity of the harm portended."
The Supreme Court's holding validated the EEOC's regulations permitting an employer to refuse to hire individuals whose medical conditions pose a threat to their own health or safety. This "safe harbor" does not mean that employers can avoid hiring an individual on the sole basis that the individual has a disease, such as HIV, or based on a stereotype, which is unlawful. Rather, the employer must make an individualized assessment based on objective evidence.