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Echazabal v. Chevron
Court says ADA does not require companies to hire those with health risks

On June 10, 2002, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that employers do not have to hire a person with a disability if they believe that person's health or safety would be put at risk by performing the job.

Read the Supreme Court decision

Read the 9th Circuit decision

The decision upholds a regulation set by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces the ADA in the workplace. That regulation allows businesses to refuse to hire a worker if that worker would "pose a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals" or of the individual.

The case involved Mario Echazabal, 56, who had worked for maintenance contractors at a Chevron refinery in El Segundo, California beginning in 1972. Twice during the 1990s, Echazabal applied for maintenance jobs with Chevron, which found him well qualified for the positions. But Chevron withdrew the offers after required physical examinations showed he had hepatitis C, a chronic liver disease.

Chevron then asked the maintenance contractor to fire or reassign Echazabal, saying he risked further liver damage the longer he worked around the chemicals and toxins at the plant. He was fired and now drives a school bus part-time.

Echazabal filed suit in 1997, claiming that the ADA protects qualified workers from discrimination based on their disability. Chevron argued that employers should be able to keep people out of jobs where they could become injured or killed.

A federal judge threw out Echazabal's case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit sided with Echazabal, calling Chevron's actions "paternalistic." Monday's decision reversed the Court of Appeals ruling.

Business owners called the decision a victory. Chevron's position was supported by the Bush Administration.

Disability rights advocates worried that the ruling against Echazabal would allow employers to reject qualified workers with disabilities by saying it was for their own good. They said workers should be able to decide if the job was too dangerous for them.

"The United States Supreme Court today once again demonstrated its fundamental hostility to disability rights in the workplace," said Andrew J. Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD).

. More background

Mario Echazabal worked at Chevron's El Segundo, California oil refinery for some 20 years. During this time, he worked as a laborer, helper, and pipefitter for various maintenance contractors. When he applied directly to Chevron for a job, Chevron determined that he was qualified for the job and could perform its essential functions, and extended job offer contingent on his passing a physical examination.

But when a pre-employment physical revealed hepatitis C, Chevron withdrew its job offer, and also told contractors he could not be employed at the plant.

Echazabal then sued the company for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The trial judge dismissed the case -- but on appeal, the Ninth Circuit ruled for Echazabal, saying that under the ADA, an employer may not refuse to hire an applicant on the basis that the position would pose a "direct threat to his health or safety." According to the court, the language of the ADA provides a defense for employers only when a disabled worker "poses a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals in the workplace." "It does not permit employers to shut disabled individuals out of jobs on the ground that, by working in the jobs at issue, they may put their own health or safety at risk," says the decision. The Americans with Disabilities Act says that "disabled persons should be afforded the opportunity to decide for themselves what risks to undertake."

Chevron argued that hiring people whose disabilities may be made worse by their employment would make them "complicit in injury to their employees."

Paternalistic rules have often excluded disabled individuals from the workplace, said the Ninth Circuit in ruling for Echazabal -- and disability rights legal experts say the law's plain meaning was to protect against paternalistic attitudes of employers that would keep people with disabilities out of the workforce.

"Encountering risk is an element of everyday life experience. Assessing and accepting risk are basic elements of personal independence and the exercise of adult responsibility," says law professor Peter David Blanck, who wrote the amicus brief for the National Council on Disability supporting Echazabal. "Congress understood that and acknowledged in the ADA that discrimination takes many forms, including paternalism and stereotyping. ... Perhaps the most long-standing and insidious aspect of this type of discrimination is the assumption that people with disabilities are not competent to make informed, wise, or safe life choices. This myth is most apparent and damaging in the employment context."

"The ADA says clearly that with an employee, an employer can take into account whether that person will pose a safety threat to others; it does not say they can take into account whether the person's condition poses a threat to the person themselves," says Georgetown University Law Center's Chai Feldblum, who says this was "an intentional, anti paternalistic stance taken by members of Congress."

Larry Minsky, of Lemaire, Faunce, Pingel & Singer in Cerritos, Calif., who represented Mr. Echazabal, told Business Insurance's Judy Greenwald "what this decision holds is that an employer must allow an employee, or applicant in this case, to perform a job if the employee is fully informed, accepts the risk of a job, and says 'I can do it.' "

The case is 00-1406 Chevron U.S.A. Inc., v. Echazabal.

Read the 9th Circuit decision


The experts on disability rights law listed below can discuss disability rights cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Peter David Blanck
(319) 335-9043
Peter David Blanck is a Professor of Law and of Psychology at the University of Iowa and concentrates much of his research on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Blanck is a Commissioner on the American Bar Association Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law and a former President of the American Association on Mental Retardation's Legal Process and Advocacy Division. The U.S. District Court for the State of Wyoming appointed Blanck to the Compliance Advisory Board, which oversees the development of community, educational, and employment services for people with mental disabilities in the state. He received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Harvard University and his J.D. from Stanford Law School where he was President of the Stanford Law Review.

Robert Burgdorf, Jr.
(202) 274-7334
Professor Burgdorf teaches Constitutional Law, Civil Procedure, and the Disabilities Rights Seminar at the David Clark School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia. He also co-directs the Legislation Clinic. Professor Burgdorf has been active in securing equal rights for persons with disabilities, most recently through his work on the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991. He has held positions with various groups, including Project ACTION (Accessible Community Transportation in Our Nation), the National Council on the Handicapped, and the National Center for Law and the Handicapped. From 1976 to 1981, he co-directed the University of Maryland School of Law's Developmental Disabilities Law Project. Professor Burgdorf has published a casebook and numerous articles and reports in his field. He recently completed a legal treatise on disability discrimination in employment law for the Bureau of National Affairs.

Ruth Colker
(614) 292-0900
Ohio State University Professor Colker is one of the leading scholars in the country in the areas of Constitutional Law and Disability Discrimination. She is the author of five books, two of which have won book prizes. She has also published more than 50 articles in law journals such as the Harvard Law Review, Yale Law Journal, Columbia Law Journal, and University of Michigan Law Journal. She has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio to comment on disability and constitutional law topics. Before joining the faculty at Ohio State, Professor Colker taught at Tulane University, the University of Toronto, the University of Pittsburgh and in the women's studies graduate program at George Washington University. She also spent four years working as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice where she received two awards for outstanding performance

Matthew Diller
(212) 636-6980
Professor Diller is Associate Director, Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics; Scholar in Residence, Brennan Center for Justice, NYU School of Law, Fall 1999; The Legal Aid Society, 1986-93; Adjunct Assistant Professor of Law, New York University School of Law, Fall 1989, Spring 1993; Law Clerk to the late Hon. Walter R. Mansfield, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, 1985-1986; Principal subjects: Civil Procedure, Administrative Law, Social Welfare Law, Seminar in Ethics and Public Interest Law.

Chai R. Feldblum
(202) 662-9595
Professor of Law; Director, Federal Legislation Clinic Expertise: federal legislation, disability rights, gay and lesbian rights, AIDS, privacy, welfare and Medicaid reform. Professor Feldblum joined the faculty as a visiting professor for the 1991-93 academic years. In 1993, she established a new law school clinic, the Federal Legislation Clinic, and has served as the Clinic's Director since 1993. Prior to joining the law faculty, Professor Feldblum worked as a legislative counsel at the AIDS Action Council, and at the ACLU AIDS Project, focusing on federal legislation concerning AIDS. She clerked for First Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Frank M. Coffin in 1985, and for Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun in 1986. >From 1989-90, Professor Feldblum played a leading role in the drafting and negotiating of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. She has also worked extensively in advancing gay and lesbian rights, particularly in the drafting of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. Professor Feldblum engages in scholarly work and practical advocacy in the areas of disability rights, lesbian and gay rights, and health and social welfare legislation.

Read more on the meaning of "disability" under ADA.






Expert sources

From the Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers:

Historical Context of the ADA

ADA definition of disability

Overview of law's structure

The ADA is changing the landscape of America -- commentary

"The ADA changed my life" -- personal stories

The meaning of "disability" under ADA

"A misunderstood law" -- commentary

The ADA Notification Act

Supreme Court ADA decisions:

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