The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulation that allows employers to refuse employment to an applicant if the applicant’s own health would be endangered. Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Echazabal, 536 U.S. ___ (2002).
The plaintiff, Echazabal, had applied twice for a job with Chevron U.S.A. Inc. After medical examinations by company physicians, Chevron declined to hire Echazabal because exposure to plant chemicals would aggravate his liver abnormality. Echazabal sued Chevron under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), claiming an unlawful refusal to hire based on a disability, his liver condition. Chevron argued that an EEOC regulation permits a refusal to hire if the job would pose a "direct threat" to the potential employee’s own health.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held, however, that the EEOC regulation was invalid because the ADA did not permit a "threat-to-self defense." It noted that the ADA expressly permits an employer’s job qualification standards to "include a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals in the workplace."(Emphasis added.) The EEOC regulation in effect broadened this statutory exception to include employment risks to the employee’s own health or safety. The regulation states that an employer may require "that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of the individual or others in the workplace." (Emphasis added.) The Ninth Circuit held that, inasmuch as Congress had limited the ADA’s "direct threat" provision to "other" employees, the EEOC could not expand it by regulation to the disabled employee himself.
The Supreme Court reversed and upheld the EEOC regulation as lawful. The court held that the ADA provision regarding threats to others was merely one example of a permissible qualification standard. If the phrase "direct threat to ... other individuals in the workplace" was exclusive, the court observed that an employer could not refuse to hire those who threaten persons outside the workplace. The Supreme Court asked, "If Typhoid Mary had come under the ADA, would a meat packer have been defenseless if Mary had sued after being turned away?" The Supreme Court also noted that Chevron had a legitimate concern that hiring the plaintiff would conflict with the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires employers to provide a safe workplace for "each" and "every" worker.
The court was careful to note, however, that the EEOC regulation does not permit reliance on pre-textual stereotypes that may be disguised as worker protection. The regulation requires the threat-to-self to be "based on a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge and/or the best available objective evidence" and requires an "individualized assessment of the [applicant's] present ability to perform ... essential [job] functions... ."