The U.S. Supreme Court held in a unanimous opinion that employers may refuse to hire or place an individual whose medical condition constitutes a "direct threat" to himself or herself. The Court’s June 10, 2002, decision in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Echazabal is excellent news for employers.
The Plaintiff, Mario Echazabal, sought a regular job at a Chevron oil refinery after having worked there for an independent contractor. He twice received conditional offers of employment, contingent on his successfully completing a medical examination. During both medical examinations, Echazabal was found to have Hepatitis C, which the company doctors said would be aggravated by toxins present in the work environment. As a result, Chevron withdrew its offers of employment, and he was finally laid off by the independent contractor for whom he worked. Echazabal sued Chevron, contending that the company’s refusal to employ him constituted disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").
The ADA gives employers the right to establish certain qualification standards, including insisting that an individual not pose a "direct threat" to the health or safety of other individuals. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") regulations say that this "direct threat" defense applies when the individual’s condition puts co-workers or the individual himself at risk.
Chevron cited this EEOC regulation in defense of its decision to withdraw its job offers to the plaintiff. Chevron won summary judgment at the district court level. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Guam, and Northern Mariana Islands) reversed, finding that the EEOC had exceeded its authority by extending the "direct threat" defense to risks to the individual’s own health and safety.
The Supreme Court held that the EEOC regulation was valid. Although this decision is excellent news for employers, there are a few cautions employers should keep in mind when deciding to use "direct threat" as the basis for an employment decision:
- The "direct threat" defense is available only when there is (1) an imminent risk (2) of substantial harm. Thus, for example, an employer should not try to use "direct threat" to disqualify an otherwise qualified applicant or employee on the grounds that a medical condition could possibly develop (or be exacerbated) several years in the future.
- The direct threat must be based on an "individualized assessment." In other words, general fears are not enough. The impact of the medical condition on the particular individual in the particular job must be considered in making the determination.
- If the threat can be reduced or eliminated through a reasonable accommodation, the employer must offer the reasonable accommodation. If a reasonable accommodation will eliminate the direct threat, then the employer may not refuse to employ the individual.
- If a reasonable accommodation can reduce the threat, then the employer must determine whether the remaining "unaccommodated" threat is bad enough to warrant the adverse employment decision.
If you need help in determining whether your company’s rejection of an applicant or employee based on the individual’s medical condition would run afoul of the ADA under the Supreme Court’s analysis, or if you need help in handling reasonable accommodation issues, please don’t hesitate to contact your Constangy attorney.