U.S. Judicial Decisions

Article excerpt

ADA. In an employment discrimination case, the United States Supreme Court has overturned a lower court's ruling and remanded the case. A federal appeals court had ruled that a company's blanket rule of refusing to rehire employees who had been fired or who quit to avoid being fired could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if the employee in question had been terminated because of a drug addiction. The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that the hiring policy was a legitimate reason for failing to rehire the plaintiff.

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In July of 1991, Joel Hernandez was given a drug test at his workplace, Hughes Missile Systems Company, where he had been employed for 25 years. (Hughes has since been acquired by Raytheon Company, which has become the petitioner in this case.) Hernandez tested positive for cocaine.

The company knew that Hernandez had also had an alcohol problem. Raytheon gave Hernandez the option of resigning, which he did. The reason for the resignation given in Hernandez's file was "quit in lieu of discharge."

On January 24, 1994, Hernandez applied to Raytheon to be rehired for his former position. Along with his application, Hernandez submitted two reference letters: one from the pastor of his church and another from a counselor attesting that Hernandez attended Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) regularly and was committed to his recovery.

Hernandez's application was forwarded to the company's labor relations department and was reviewed by Joanne Bockmiller. Because the application indicated that Hernandez had worked for Raytheon in the past, Bockmiller pulled his file. When she saw the "quit in lieu of discharge" note, Bockmiller determined that Hernandez was ineligible for rehire because of the company's blanket policy of not rehiring employees that were fired or that resigned in lieu of termination.

Hernandez filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that his application was rejected because of his disability--his drug and alcohol addiction. The EEOC sent a letter to Raytheon informing the company that it intended to sue for discrimination under the ADA.

Raytheon responded to the EEOC by letter indicating that Hernandez's application had been rejected because Hernandez had used drugs while previously employed and had "shown a complete lack of evidence indicating successful drug rehabilitation."

Raytheon also went on to state its policy of refusing to rehire any employee who had been terminated for violation of company rules and regulations. The company filed for summary judgment--a hearing based on the facts of a case, without a trial--arguing that Hernandez had failed to establish a case of discrimination because he never claimed to be disabled.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona granted the summary judgment without comment. Hernandez appealed the decision.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found in favor of Hernandez, ruling that he could pursue his ADA case against Raytheon. The court ruled that Hernandez in fact did not claim to be disabled; he claimed that Raytheon considered him disabled when it refused to rehire him because it perceived he was a drug addict.

The court also noted that while Bockmiller claimed not to have known about Hernandez's history of drug use, this position was questionable. The court noted that Bockmiller would have seen the letter of recommendation regarding AA attendance and would have been aware that Hernandez was a recovering alcoholic.

The court ruled that Hernandez could pursue his case and that the burden of proof shifted to Raytheon, which had to show that it had a nondiscriminatory reason for not rehiring Hernandez. Raytheon appealed the decision.

The Supreme Court overturned the lower court's decision. According to the Court, once a prima facie case of discrimination had been established, the next question for the appellate court to consider was whether Raytheon had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions. …