Pre-Existing Medical Conditions; Mario Echazabal vs. Chevron USA Inc., Docket No. 98-55551, June 10, 2002, U.S. Supreme Court

Date: Sep 01, 2002

We previously discussed the case of Mario Echazabal v. Chevron after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in May 2000. Echazabal sought to require Chevron to allow him to work in its chemical facility, in spite of the fact that he failed a physical examination. Echazabal had a pre-existing condition that, in the opinion of Chevron's physicians, would put him at increased risk of injury from the exposures he would encounter in the plant. After the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Chevron, the 9th Circuit upheld Echazabal's position, reversing the trial court. Chevron appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court rejected the 9th Circuit's approach, rejecting the idea that employers should be required to stand by and allow employees to take unnecessary personal risks. Echazabal would not be permitted to force Chevron to ignore the opinions of medical staff charged with advising the company about the affect of potential health hazards in the workplace. 

Americans with Disabilities Act

In 1991, Congress adopted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which required employers to determine the essential functions of jobs and to hire employees based on their ability to do a job, with or without reasonable accommodation. Employees who were otherwise qualified could not be denied either employment opportunities or benefits because of medical conditions that may be perceived as disabilities. Chevron faced the question that occupational safety and health managers have often discussed: Does the law require employers to hire people with potential medical conditions that put them at increased risk of injury in certain kinds of operations? The 9th Circuit said the risk was Echazabal's to take, and paternalistic attitudes, rejected in the ADA, could not be the basis for an employer's decision.

Direct Threat Exception

When the ADA was adopted it contained a provision, the direct threat exception, which allowed employers to exclude individuals with disabilities from jobs in which their employment would create a direct threat to the safety of others. One would have thought that, similarly, individuals would not be permitted to take jobs that put them at unreasonable risk of injury. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) agreed, asserting that employers could not be required to hire someone whose employment would endanger his or her own health. The EEOC's decision was based on previous regulations adopted under an earlier statute that had similar language to the ADA.

Following other case law, however, the 9th Circuit said that a person should be judged as to his or her qualifications based on ability to "perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires." Whether the job presents a risk to the individual's own health, said the 9th Circuit Court, is a risk that the individual is entitled to take.  The employer cannot circumvent the requirements of the ADA by incorporating into the essential functions of the job the requirement that a person be able to perform the job without risk of injury. 

The Supreme Court finally and completely rejected the 9th Circuit's rationale and agreed that the EEOC was within its power to interpret the direct threat provision to include a direct threat to self. Many OSHA standards require that employers screen individuals to exclude those with conditions that put them at increased risk. Under the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act, employers have an obligation to provide a safe and healthful place of employment for all employees, including those with pre-existing conditions. To require employers to put highly susceptible individuals in situations where they are more likely than the average employee to be adversely affected would be to ignore a clear congressional mandate regarding workplace safety. The EEOC's resolution, the Supreme Court said, "exemplifies the substantive choices that agencies are expected to make when Congress leaves the intersection of competing objectives. . ."

The Decision

Under the Supreme Court's decision, an employer may refuse to hire an individual if, based on a reasonable medical judgment of that individual, a disability would create or aggravate a danger to his or her own safety or health on the job. The employer's decision must be "based on a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge and/or the best available objective evidence," in an "expressly 'individualized assessment of the individual's present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job,' reached after considering, among other things, the imminence of the risk and the severity of the harm portended." In other words, employers should have a good reason for denying employment based on physical conditions, and the reason should relate to the individual's specific medical condition and not on paternalistic generalizations about what an individual can or cannot do. If there is a sound, medical reason to prevent a person from endangering him- or herself, then employers have an obligation to do so.

This article appeared in Compliance Magazine (September 2002) and it is reprinted with permission of Compliance Magazine. Copyright © 2002 by IHS Publishing Group. All rights reserved.

For further information about this article, please contact David G. Sarvadi at 202-434-4249 or by e-mail at sarvadi@khlaw.com.