Americans with Disabilities Act Takes Another Hit in the Supreme Court

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But High Court requires that any exclusion of employees with disabilities be based on "the best available medical evidence"
June 10, 2002

(New York, June 10, 2002) In a decision with important implications for people with HIV and other disabilities, the Supreme Court today sided in significant part with employers in the case of Chevron v. Echazabal. The central issue before the Court was whether an employer may deny a position to a person with a disability when the individual’s disability makes the job harmful to the individual’s health. However, acknowledging the existence of expert testimony refuting Chevron’s position, the decision leaves for the trial court the issue of central importance to Mr. Echazabal - whether he is qualified to perform the job.

Mario Echazabal worked for various contractors at Chevron’s oil refinery in El Segundo, California from 1972 until 1996. In 1995, when Echazabal sought to work directly for Chevron, he received a job offer that later was withdrawn when a pre-employment medical test revealed a liver abnormality. Chevron’s reflexive reaction to Echazabal’s condition, which later was diagnosed as chronic hepatitis C, was very suspicious. The evidence showed that any chemicals hazardous to Echazabal would be dangerous for other workers. Expert investigation revealed nothing related to the refinery job that would endanger Echazabal. And Echazabal had worked for years doing the type of work involved without any negative impact on his health. Chevron also argued in court that allowing Echazabal to become an employee would increase the cost of workers compensation benefits and undermine employee morale.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is at total odds with the fundamental purpose of the Americans with Disabilities Act: to allow those with disabilities to make their own decisions about what risks they’re willing to take in order to work, as long as they can do the job and don’t harm other people,” said Catherine Hanssens, AIDS Project Director at Lambda Legal. "However, the court acknowledges Congress’ concern that this kind of defense is usually a pretext for discrimination, and so affirms that employers must have the most current, objective medical evidence available supporting an employment decision before excluding someone on the basis of a disability," she added.

“This is the kind of discrimination that people with HIV encounter all the time - exclusion from employment supposedly ‘for their own good,’” Hanssens said. “It’s a sad day when the Supreme Court provides employers further cover for discrimination in the name of 'business necessity,' but we hope and expect that the court will give the same expansive treatment to other parts of the ADA regulations that federal courts now ignore in excluding people with HIV and mental health disabilitites from their chosen professions."

Lambda Legal is America’s oldest and largest legal organization dedicated to the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgendered people, and people with HIV and AIDS. Lambda Legal has its headquarters in New York and regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta. Lambda Legal will open an office in Dallas later this month.

Contact: Chris Hampton, 212/809-8585 ext. 222
Catherine Hannsens, 212/809-8585 ext. 215



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