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Supreme Court Watch

February 27, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The justices heard another case testing the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

At issue today: Can an employer refuse to hire a job applicant because the workplace threatens the applicant’s health?

For more on today’s arguments we’re joined by NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, Supreme Court reporter for The Chicago Tribune.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mario Echazabal wanted to work at a Chevron refinery. They refused to hire him.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. The kind of odd thing about this is he had been working in the refinery for almost 20 years but as a contract employee working for an independent contractor.

So, wanting some benefits and more job security, he applied to Chevron for a permanent position. Chevron said, ‘sure, come on board but you’ve got to get a medical exam.’

So during the course of the medical examination Chevron’s doctors discovered that he had a liver problem. He went to his doctors. They confirmed he had Hepatitis C. So Chevron, worried that exposure to chemicals in the refinery would do further damage to his liver, withdrew its offer of an employment.

So he went back and worked for the independent contractor and then sometime later came back to Chevron, reapplied, went through the same thing again, the same kind of medical exam, with the same result. Significant damage had occurred to his liver. Chevron was worried that again this repeated exposure to the chemicals would cause even more problems and it could potentially, their doctors feared, could potentially even kill him.

Again Chevron withdrew an offer of employment and told the independent contractor, please don’t send him back to the refinery anymore.

Then, he turned around and sued saying that Chevron was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark federal law designed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination.

RAY SUAREZ: So this went to a federal appellate court, first, right?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Yes, and he won in the California-based federal appeals court, said that Chevron could not refuse to hire him simply because it was worried about threats to his own health.

It looked to language in the Americans with Disabilities Act and, sure enough, the law gives employers a defense if they are fearful that the employee, the prospective employee, might cause harm to other people on the job.

But the appeals court stressed that it’s silent about the applicant who may harm himself by performing the job’s duties, so it sided with the employee, and it stressed that Congress, when it passed the Disabilities Act, was very concerned about these old paternalistic rules that had long been used to shut out people with disabilities from the workplace.

It stressed that Congress surely would have wanted the employees, the prospective employees, to make those kinds of decisions for themselves.

RAY SUAREZ: So Chevron asked to be heard in the Supreme Court. What did it have to say today?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, it actually has somewhat… it has an interesting argument beyond what exactly is contained in the law because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in formulating regulations to implement the disabilities law said that employers could also refuse to hire people who might prevent — or present a threat to their own health or safety.

So we have these agency regulations that say the law makes clear employer doesn’t have to hire a person who might be a threat to others but also who might be a threat to himself.

Chevron is relying on this agency’s interpretation of the law, and they’re saying that that should rule the day.

RAY SUAREZ: So what did the justices pick up on in their questioning of the lawyers?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, several of the justices right away made the obvious point that I think… that strikes everybody about this case.

I mean Justice O’Connor right away said… suggested that this is kind of a strange case. Why would anyone want to do a job that might kill them or at least cause them serious harm?

And the attorney for the employee in this case suggested that that’s just a fanciful example and even in this case that’s not really what’s going on, that there’s some dispute about the risk involved and that maybe — it may not be so harmful for the worker as the company alleges.

So that was something that right away got their attention. But the lawyer for the employee said that we’ve got to be worried about the more general cases when companies could wrongfully exclude workers, where there may not be much risk, or where the company just may be worried about protecting itself from liability, so they just would rather not worry about a certain employee hurting himself, you know, somewhere down the line.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, a lot of cases involving the Americans with Disabilities Act have come before the Supreme Court.

Do we know anything about what this court thinks about the Act?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s an interesting question because, sure, I mean this Court has taken up I think already has decided nine different cases involving the scope of the Disabilities Act.

And in many of those it has kind of scaled back who would be able to turn to the Act — who is considered disabled under the law and who would be protected by the Act.

This case obviously is a slightly different question because no one for the purposes of this case is disputing that the worker is disabled.

The question is, once he’s disabled, once he’s covered by the Act, does Chevron have a defense not to hire him?

And I think it was very difficult to get a sense from the justices’ questions today how they viewed what is really a quite difficult problem.

Justice O’Connor seemed concern that some companies could face liability if they hired a worker who later was seriously injured or even killed by performing his job responsibilities.

Justice Breyer worried about the suicidal worker who was determined to die with his boots on as he called it and expressed concern that perhaps, you know, should they defer to the interpretation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

It was very difficult I think to get a read on this case because it’s a very vexing issue.

RAY SUAREZ: Jan Crawford Greenburg, thanks a lot.