Court Decisions Narrow Scope of Disability Act

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Byline: On the Job by Bureau of Labor & Industries For The Register-Guard

Q: It seems that every week we get new court decisions about the ADA and what it means for employers. What are the latest developments?

A: The federal Americans With Disabilities Act is still a relatively new law that continues to develop in the courts. The ADA was enacted by Congress and signed into law by former President Bush in 1990.

The Oregon statutes on employees with disabilities were amended in 1997 and closely mirror the language of the ADA.

Federal and Oregon disability laws prohibit employers from discriminating against job applicants and employees with disabilities.

These laws also require employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities who are qualified to perform the essential functions of the job.

However, an employer isn't required to make an accommodation if it would be an "undue hardship." And the employer isn't required to retain a disabled employee who poses a "direct threat" in the workplace.

The latest ADA decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, Chevron USA Inc. vs. Echazabal, has to do with the application of the "direct threat" defense.

In this unanimous decision issued on June 10, the court held that an employer may consider whether a worker's disability poses a direct threat to the worker's own health.

The employee in this case, Echazabal, was working for an independent contractor at a Chevron oil refinery. He applied to work directly for Chevron and was offered a position, conditioned on his passing a physical exam.

When the doctors reported to Chevron that working in the refinery would aggravate the employee's liver disease, Chevron withdrew its job offer and the employee sued under the ADA.

Chevron raised the defense, allowed under a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulation, that Echazabal's disability would pose a direct threat to his health.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Oregon and other Western states) rejected that defense in 2000, deciding that under the ADA an employer may only consider whether an employee poses a threat to others in the workplace.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the EEOC exceeded its authority in issuing its rule and that employers could not deny employment based on "paternalistic concerns" about an employee's health. …