February 27, 2002
Supreme Court Hears Alleged Discrimination Case From El Segundo
By TOBY ECKERT
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON -- In a case arising from a Chevron oil refinery in El Segundo, the Supreme Court weighed arguments Wednesday over whether the federal disabilities act allows employers to bar people from jobs that may jeopardize their health, even if they want the jobs.
Several of the justices appeared skeptical of arguments that Chevron violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it refused to hire Mario Echazabal after company physicians concluded that his liver ailment could have been aggravated, or even made fatal, by exposure to chemicals at the refinery.
""We want employers to care about their employees.... It seems to me that's a very, very important position to further,'' said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, adding that it would be ""barbarous'' for a company to put a disabled person in harm's way.
But Samuel R. Bagenstos, an attorney for Echazabal, argued that Chevron was practicing ""paternalistic discrimination'' that Congress sought to end by passing the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.
""The real issue is whether the employer or employee gets to make the decision,'' he told the court, contending that Echazabal faced only a small health risk from the job. ""...It is our argument that Congress left the decision in the hands of the employee.''
Some of the justices seemed to agree.
""If he wants to run greater risks than you think he should, that's his business,'' Justice Stephen Breyer remarked.
Attorneys for Chevron and the Bush administration, which has sided with the company in the case, argued that it was permissible to bar Echazabal from the job because it presented a direct threat to his health. Knowingly putting a person at such risk would expose the company to lawsuits, violations of worker safety laws and bad publicity, Chevron argued.
""Safety is a paradigm business necessity,'' Stephen M. Shapiro, a lawyer for Chevron, told the justices. ""That's the culmination of a hundred years of industrial policy.''
The Supreme Court's decision in the case is expected to set another important precedent on the scope of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. In recent years, the court has narrowed the reach of the law within the workplace in several cases.
At issue in the Chevron case is whether the ADA allows employers to refuse to hire someone whose disability poses no threat to others in the workplace, only to the would-be worker who wants the job despite the risk to her or his health.
Echazabal, 56, was working as an independent contractor at the refinery when he applied to work directly for Chevron, hoping to improve his benefits and job security. He was twice offered a job by Chevron on condition that he pass a medical exam.
Both job offers were rescinded after he was diagnosed with liver abnormalities and company doctors concluded exposure to toxic chemicals at the refinery would worsen the condition. His own doctor concluded he had chronic active Hepatitis C.
Chevron subsequently asked that Echazabal's direct employer, Irwin Industries Inc., remove him from the refinery or put him in a job that limited his exposure to solvents or chemicals.
Echazabal, who now is a part-time school bus driver, sued Chevron for allegedly violating the ADA.
""I'm still feeling good,'' he told reporters after Wednesday's Supreme Court arguments. ""I like my old job. I know the job.''
Echazabal's lawyers have pointed out that the law only says employers can refuse to hire someone who poses a ""direct threat'' to the health or safety of co-workers.
But Chevron noted that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in promulgating rules to enforce the law, said a ""direct threat'' included ""a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual.''
A federal district court agreed with the company's interpretation of the ADA. But the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, and Chevron appealed to the Supreme Court.
A ruling is expected by the end of June.