- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2003


The Supreme Court gave companies some leeway yesterday to refuse to rehire recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, but without the broad ruling that employers sought.

Justices ruled 7-0 that Hughes Missile Systems Co. has a legitimate reason to refuse to rehire workers who break rules, including former employees with addictions.

But the court dodged the more significant question of whether the more than 5 million workers with substance abuse problems have workplace protection under the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act.

The court ordered the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the case of an Arizona missile plant worker who lost his job after testing positive for drugs.

Joel Hernandez, a 25-year employee, quit in 1991 after a test showed he had used cocaine. More than two years later, after completing drug and alcohol treatment, he was turned down when he tried to get rehired.

The appeals court ruled that a jury should decide whether Mr. Hernandez was a discrimination victim under the 1990 disabilities law. The law specifically protects people who are clean after being treated for their addiction, but allows companies to discipline those who use substances on the job.

Justice Clarence Thomas, in the Supreme Court ruling, said the appeals court used the wrong analysis in reviewing the Hernandez case.

Hughes gave a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for refusing to rehire [Mr. Hernandez],” Justice Thomas said.

The company had an unwritten policy against rehiring workers who broke rules — such as not using illegal drugs — and argued that thousands of other employers have the same rule.

Washington lawyer Carter Phillips, who represents the company, said while the case is not over, the Supreme Court “sent some pretty clear signals about what they think is the right answer.”

“The idea of somebody who’s using drugs in a missile system testing facility is at least a little worrisome,” Mr. Phillips said.

Mr. Hernandez called the decision disappointing for those working through addiction.

“It sends a dark cloud, a hopeless situation for recovering addicts as far as regaining stature in society,” Mr. Hernandez said.

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