California Disability Rights at Workplace – Individualized Approach to an Employee is Required

The protections afforded to employee under the Federal and State disability laws are quite expansive and go far beyond protecting just those employee who have a “disability” the way an ordinary person would understand the term, such as being handicapped, or having suffered from a major traumatic injury. The US Supreme Court case School of Board of Nassau County, Florida, v. Arline, 481 U.S. 1024 (1987) is an illustration of this broad application of the disability laws at workplace. In that case, a school teacher was fired from her job solely because of her susceptibility to tuberculosis. The school argued that in removing the teacher from her position, they were protecting the safety of others by preventing the teacher from infecting students and administration with the contagious effects of tuberculosis during a possible relapse. However, the Supreme Court was not persuaded, noting that allowing discrimination based on the contagious effects of a physical impairment would be inconsistent with the basic purpose of section 504 (Rehabilitation Act) which is to ensure that handicapped individuals are not denied jobs or other benefits because of the prejudiced attitudes or ignorance of others. The fact that some persons who have contagious disease may pose a serious health threat to others under certain circumstances does not justify excluding from the coverage of the Act all persons with actual or perceived contagious diseases. Such exclusion would mean that those accused of being contagious would never have the opportunity to have their condition evaluated in light of medical evidence. Rather, they would be vulnerable to discrimination on the basis of mythology – precisely the type of injury Congress sought to prevent.

The Court further agreed American Medical Association that to determine whether the Plaintiff was otherwise qualified for her position, an individualized inquiry should have been made, which was to include “findings of fact, based on reasonable medical judgments given the state of medical knowledge about (a) the nature of the risk (how the disease is transmitted), (b) the duration of the risk (how long is the carrier infectious”, (c) the severity of the risk (what is the potential harm to third parties) and (d) the probabilities the disease will be transmitted and will cause varying degrees of harm.”

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