Supreme Court takes up employee rights in ADA

Plant refused to rehire worker who was treated for drug, alcohol abuse

October 09, 2003|By Jan C. Greenburg | Jan C. Greenburg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Taking up a key case under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Supreme Court justices grappled yesterday with whether an employer can refuse to rehire a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser who has beaten his addictions and wants his job back.

A lawyer for Joel Hernandez, a former employee of Hughes Missile Systems Co., argued that the company's refusal to consider him for a job after his rehabilitation violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. He urged the justices to affirm a decision by a California-based federal appeals court that permitted him to pursue his lawsuit against his former employer.

"The purpose of the ADA is not to segregate disabled individuals who can work from the job market," said Hernandez' attorney, Stephen Montoya.

But a lawyer for the company, which now is a part of Raytheon Co., argued that Hernandez had no legitimate claim. The company had a neutral policy against rehiring any worker terminated for misconduct, and Hernandez was treated no differently than a worker fired for harassment or theft, said attorney Carter Phillips.

Paul Clement, a lawyer for the Bush administration - which was allowed by the justices to participate in arguments on the case - said the policy does not single out people who are addicted for unfair treatment, but instead "treats all people the same."

Phillips and Clement argued that the appeals court decision would hurt employers because it could jeopardize workplace rules for businesses with similar policies.

"This is a decision that has extraordinary implications, because thousands of employers have this rule," Phillips said.

The case came about in 1994, after Hernandez sought another job with Hughes, where he had worked 25 years. He had agreed to quit in 1991, in lieu of being fired, after he tested positive for cocaine. In seeking to be rehired, he submitted reference letters from a preacher about his "faithful" church attendance and from a counselor at Alcoholics Anonymous, who said he was sober.

After Hughes refused to rehire Hernandez, he complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Responding to that complaint, a manager for the company said Hernandez was rejected because of his previous drug use and because there was no evidence that he had been successfully rehabilitated.

The EEOC gave Hernandez the go-ahead to file a lawsuit against Hughes, finding "reasonable cause to believe" that Hernandez was refused a job because of his disability.

The justices appeared divided on the case, although several expressed concern that there were too many factual disputes for them to resolve the legal issues. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, said it was unclear whether the company had a written policy in place.

During his argument, Montoya said that even if such a policy existed, the company's decision not to reconsider Hernandez still would violate the disabilities law.

He argued - and the appeals court agreed - that such a policy would "screen out" from employment all recovering alcoholics and drug abusers who had sought to be rehired. Since those workers are protected by the ADA, he said, the policy is illegal as applied to them.

But some of the justices questioned whether Hernandez was disabled, under the definition of the act. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said she "doesn't see how" Hernandez can make a claim under the ADA because he currently is not disabled.

The law does not prohibit employers from firing people who abuse alcohol or drugs, but it does protect workers who have beaten their addictions, Montoya said.

He pointed to the words of the statute, under which people with a record of a physical or mental impairment or who are regarded as having such an impairment are considered disabled. The ADA says recovering addicts are to be considered disabled and protected by the law.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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