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High Court Ruling Called Setback for Disabled, Ill

June 11, 2002

In a unanimous decision Monday, the US Supreme Court ruled that employers can reject applicants for jobs that would endanger their health. The ruling, in the case of a Southern California refinery worker with hepatitis C, alarmed advocates for HIV-positive people and the mentally ill, who said cost-conscious employers could exaggerate or invent health concerns to turn applicants away. "I can envision all kinds of scenarios in which employers decide that jobs are too stressful or jobs expose people to all kinds of toxins, and that that would be dangerous to people with HIV," said American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Matthew Coles. The saving grace for disabled workers, Coles said, was that the court said employers must rely on "the most current medical knowledge," or "the best available objective evidence" rather than stereotypes. Businesses said the ruling would promote safety without fostering discrimination against the disabled.

The case involved Mario Echazabal, who worked for contractors at Chevron's El Segundo refinery for 24 years and sought a better job with Chevron. The company turned him down, saying a medical exam -- disputed by Echazabal -- showed liver damage, caused by hepatitis C, which could lead to a lethal reaction to refinery toxins. The opinion by Justice David Souter noted that the Americans with Disabilities Act allows employers to reject disabled applicants who threaten the health or safety of other workers. Although the law does not mention a threat to one's own health, a US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulation lets employers reject applicants on that basis, and Souter said the EEOCs' interpretation was reasonable. The case is Chevron USA vs. Echazabal, No. 00-1406.

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Excerpted from:
San Francisco Chronicle
06.11.02; Bob Egelko




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