Employers Can Defend Decisions Not To Hire Disables Individuals Who Are At Risk Of Workplace Health Hazards

In its third major decision this term involving the Americans with Disabilities Act, the U. S. Supreme Court upheld an EEOC regulation permitting an employer to defend a decision not to employ an individual with a disability in a position that would endanger that individual’s own health or safety.

In this case, Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Echazabal, 536 U.S. ___ (2002), the Court continues its approach to the ADA of focusing on individualized assessment and the use of objective and reliable medical opinion when making employment decisions with a minimum risk of liability.

The plaintiff worked for a Chevron contractor for over twenty years. He applied for a position at a Chevron U.S.A. refinery in 1992 and again in 1995. Chevron refused to hire him both times because it believed the position would pose a serious threat to his life.

On plaintiff’s appeal from an unfavorable judgment of the trial court, the Ninth Circuit reversed the judgment, saying the “direct threat” defense available to employers under the ADA does not apply to employees who pose a direct threat only to their own health or safety. The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit and upheld the EEOC’s “direct threat to self” regulation, the decision of the U. S. Supreme Court focused on three major points. The case underscores the basic premise that the law does not bar employers from making employment decisions that may impact negatively on individuals with disabilities.

Employers are cautioned, however, not to use this decision as a method to avoid hiring disabled applicants. Employers must continue to make each hiring decision on a case by case basis, with a careful evaluation of the specific job and the applicant’s particular abilities and disabilities.