A Supreme Court decision that says employers cannot be forced to hire disabled people for jobs that could put their health at risk is unlikely to significantly weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act, legal experts said yesterday.
In a unanimous decision yesterday, the court ruled that employers could refuse to hire people whose disabilities would endanger them on the job.
The case, which involved a former Chevron refinery worker, is the latest in a series of rulings against employees who have sued under the act, which bars job discrimination against the disabled.
Legal experts said the 9-0 ruling cut across ideological lines on the often-divided Supreme Court and is unlikely to be regarded as a blockbuster case among advocates for the disabled.
"I don't know that there's going to be a big hue and cry about this one," said Neal D. Mollen, an employment law expert with Paul, Hastings, Janofsky and Walker in Washington. "This case was about the right for individuals to endanger themselves, and there's not a large constituency for that proposition.
Mario Echazabal, who has liver disease, was denied a job at a California refinery because Chevron officials feared exposure to chemicals at the plant could exacerbate his condition.
Echazabal, who had previously worked at the plant as a subcontractor, argued that he should be able to decide for himself whether the job posed a significant health risk.
The justices reversed a lower court ruling in favor of Echazabal and sent the case back for further review.
The case is seen as a victory for employers, who feared they could be sued over workplace injuries.
"The court recognized that the employer would kind of be on the horns of a dilemma if it didn't uphold the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's] interpretation," said Elizabeth Torphy-Donzella, an attorney with Shawe & Rosenthal in Baltimore. "They are required to provide a safe workplace, but if they are required to hire [Echazabal], they would have potentially been in violation" of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
The Americans with Disabilities Act says employers have to accommodate qualified disabled workers, but it makes an exception for those who might be a threat to the safety or health of others on the job.
The EEOC, which can enforce the disabilities act in the workplace, has interpreted the exception as also applying to a worker whose disability might put only him at risk. The court ruled that the EEOC's regulations protecting worker safety were appropriate in this case.
Legal experts said the ruling might narrow the scope of the disabilities act. But the court did not give employers overarching authority to deny disabled workers jobs because of health or safety concerns.
The justices said employers must evaluate each case and provide strong medical evidence to back up their claims.
In addition, Torphy-Donzella said, employers can't deny employment if the potential harm could be avoided by a "reasonable accommodation." In Echazabal's case, the harm was unavoidable.
The Echazabal case marks the sixth time the Supreme Court has ruled against employees recently in cases testing the limits of the ADA.
In January, the court ruled against an assembly-line worker with carpal tunnel syndrome. That case made it harder for workers to demand special treatment when they have partial disabilities that might impair them on the job but do not substantially affect their day-to-day life.
"The United States Supreme Court today once again demonstrated its fundamental hostility to disability rights in the workplace," said Andrew J. Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.