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EEOC v. Exxon Corp., U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (10 AD Cases 225), Decided February 11, 2000
Decision: An employer need not meet the “direct threat” test of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) when attempting to justify a generally-applied, safety-based qualification standard. An employer need only establish that its standard is “job-related” and “consistent with business necessity.”
Background: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought suit on behalf of certain Exxon employees, alleging that Exxon's substance abuse policy violates the ADA.
The policy permanently removed any employee who has undergone treatment for substance abuse from certain safety-sensitive, little-supervised positions. Exxon adopted the policy in response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident. Concerns arose that the tanker's chief officer's alcoholism, which had previously been treated, might have contributed to the accident.
The EEOC challenged Exxon’s blanket exclusion of former substance abusers as invalid on its face on the ground that it violated the ADA because it did not provide for an individualized assessment of each particular employee’s situation. Exxon argued that such an assessment would be impractical or impossible, given the difficulty of reliably predicting an individual’s relapse into substance abuse.
The ADA prohibits an employer from using qualification standards that screen out a disabled individual or class. An employer may raise certain affirmative defenses to such a charge. The relevant portions of the statute's “Defenses” provision read:
“It may be a defense to a charge of discrimination under this chapter that an alleged application of qualification standards … that screen out or tend to screen out or otherwise deny a job or benefit to an individual with a disability has been shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity…. The term ‘qualification standards’ may include a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals in the workplace.”
The court noted that safety-based qualification standards are an accepted ground for a defense, but the question before the court was whether an employer may defend the questioned personnel decision as based on a standard justified as a business necessity or must demonstrate a “direct threat” in each circumstance.
Court’s Opinion: Overturning the lower court’s grant of partial summary judgment in favor of the EEOC, the Fifth Circuit held that an employer need not meet the “direct threat” test when attempting to justify a generally-applied, safety-based qualification standard, as opposed to the individualized risk presented by a particular disabled worker. Instead, an employer need only establish that its standard is “job-related” and “consistent with business necessity.”
The court emphasized, however, that proof of “business necessity” still requires proof that the risks presented are real and not the product of stereotypical assumptions, and that any evaluation of the risks sought to be addressed by the standard must take into account the magnitude of possible harm and the probability of its occurrence.
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['Drug and Alcohol Testing - DOT', 'Disabilities and ADA']
['Drug and alcohol policy - Motor Carrier', 'Disabilities and ADA', 'Drug testing - Motor Carrier']
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