Supreme Court To Decide Whether Employer May Deny Job for Employee's "Own Good"

February 26, 2002 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON–The Supreme Court will hear arguments tomorrow in an employment discrimination case that could affect the freedom of employees to weigh the risks and benefits of working particular jobs without their bosses making those decisions for them.

“Every job involves some risks, but the question is, do we let people make those risk assessments for themselves, or do we let employers decide?” said James Esseks, Litigation Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian & Gay Rights/HIV AIDS Project and primary author of a friend-of-the-court brief the organization filed in the case.

California resident Mario Echazabal, 56, was twice turned down for a job with oil giant Chevron which said that because he had Hepatitis-C the job would endanger his health.

At issue in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Mario Echazabal, No. 00-1406, is whether individuals with disabilities like Hepatitis, HIV or other medical conditions have the right to determine for themselves whether to accept the risks of employment; and whether Chevron violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it used an employee’s disability as a reason for denying employment.

“”Mario Echazabal is qualified to perform the functions of the position he sought at Chevron,”” said Lenora Lapidus, Director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and co-author of the brief. “”An employer’s demand that the functions of a position be performed without risk to one’s health is the same paternalistic argument once used to keep women out of certain work environments.””

Echazabal worked for many years at the coker unit of a Chevron refinery as an employee of various contractors. In 1992, he applied to work directly for Chevron in the same unit. Chevron offered Echazabal the job contingent upon the results of a pre-employment physical examination, and then denied him the job after a physical exam revealed he had Hepatitis-C, a condition that could worsen if he was continually exposed to solvents and chemicals in that particular unit.

In 1995 he again applied for the same position and again was denied because of his disability. This time, however, Chevron pressured the contractor for whom Echazabal worked to fire him.

A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision handed down last year held that Chevron could not defend against a disabilities act discrimination claim by arguing that the position sought by Echazabal would harm his health. The Ninth Circuit also held that under the law this sort of defense is only permissible when a disabled individual presents a direct threat to the safety of others.

The ACLU’s friend-of-the court brief is online at http://archive.aclu.org/court/echazabal.pdf

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