- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 (UPI) — The Supreme Court Monday agreed to decide whether a federal law designed to protect the disabled against job discrimination, the Americans with Disabilities Act, also protects a former drug user against bias.

A federal appeals court has ruled that it does.

If the ruling is upheld by the Supreme Court, an outcome by no means certain, it would affect how employers across the nation deal with workers who have been tested positive for drugs.

The case involves Joel Hernandez, who worked 25 years for the Hughes Missile Systems Co. Hernandez started out with the company as a janitor and worked his way up to calibration service technician.

But in July 1991, Hernandez was given a drug test at work and tested positive for cocaine. The court record says Hughes was also aware that Hernandez was struggling with an alcohol problem.

Instead of firing him outright, however, Hughes gave Hernandez the option of resigning, which he did.

After two years, Hernandez asked Hughes to rehire him as a calibration service technician or similar specialist. When Hughes refused, Hernandez filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The commission issued a letter affirming Hernandez's right to sue, and he filed a lawsuit against the company in Tucson, Ariz., under the ADA.

In general, the ADA bans discrimination against the disabled. Employers are required to "accommodate" disabled employees as long as they can reasonably do so.

A federal judge granted a Hughes request for summary judgment on the lawsuit, but a federal appeals court in San Francisco reversed.

Hernandez "has made a prima facie case of discrimination on the basis of a disability," the appeals court ruled. "He has presented sufficient evidence from which a jury could conclude that he was 'qualified' for the position he sought in 1994 and that his application was rejected because of his record of drug addiction.

"Additionally," the court said, "we hold that a policy that serves to bar the re-employment of a drug addict despite his successful rehabilitation violates the ADA."

Hughes then asked the Supreme Court for review, which was granted Monday. The justices should hear the case early next term in the fall.

(No. 02-749, Raytheon vs. Hernandez)

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