WASHINGTON — Employers can refuse to rehire recovered drug addicts or alcoholics who were dismissed for violating the company's workplace rules, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
A "no-rehire policy" is a "legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason" for rejecting a former drug user, even if federal law forbids job discrimination against people for their past abuse of drugs or alcohol, the justices said.
The unanimous, but narrow, ruling gives employers leeway to reject former employees with a troubled past, but it does not resolve the broader question of whether former drug addicts and alcoholics are entitled to equal treatment when they apply for a job with a new employer.
The high court said it was avoiding the larger issue because it found a way to resolve the case at issue by focusing only on workplace rules. The justices overturned a ruling of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that said employers violate the law whenever they "bar the reemployment of a drug addict [who had undergone] a successful rehabilitation."
Business lawyers said the ruling was likely to encourage more companies to set policies that deny rehiring to all employees who leave for misconduct.
"This is a great case for employers because it says you can have a policy that allows you to punish misconduct, not a disability," said Zachary D. Fasman, a New York lawyer who specializes in employment issues. He added, however, that "it must be a uniform policy and it must be applied uniformly."
For example, if a company rehired some former employees who broke the work rules, but not former drug users, it would be vulnerable to a discrimination charge, he said.
A drug policy expert stressed that the ruling did not free employers to reject new employees who have a history of drug abuse.
"The court did not use this case as an opportunity to shut the door to millions of people who are in recovery and are trying to enter the job market," said Judith Appel, a lawyer for the Drug Policy Alliance in Oakland.
The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 takes a two-sided approach to the issue of drug users and alcoholics. On the one hand, it makes clear that a person "currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs" cannot claim the protections of the anti-bias law. But it also says people who are no longer using drugs and have "successfully completed a supervised drug rehabilitation program" cannot be discriminated against solely because of their past addiction. The same is true for recovering alcoholics, it says.
The case began with Joel Hernandez, a veteran technician at a missile plant in Tucson that is now owned by Raytheon Co. In 1991, his appearance and behavior at work suggested he might be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Hernandez took a drug test that came back positive for cocaine, and he was forced to resign.
Afterward, Hernandez became active in his church and participated in a drug rehabilitation program. He reapplied for his old job in January 1994. The company turned him away.
Hernandez complained to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal job-discrimination laws. EEOC lawyers said Hernandez appeared to have a valid claim, and he sued Raytheon.
A federal judge in Arizona ruled for the company, but the 9th Circuit Court revived the lawsuit last year. In a 2-1 ruling, it held that Hernandez was qualified for the job and appeared to have been rejected solely because of past drug use.
Its decision sent the case to a jury for a trial. To win, Hernandez would have to prove that he was truly recovered and that the company rejected him entirely because of his past problems.
But before the case could be tried, the company appealed to the Supreme Court, with the support of big business groups. They argued that drug addicts did not deserve "preferential treatment" in the workplace.
Justices Stephen G. Breyer and David H. Souter did not vote. Typically, the justices remove themselves from business cases if they own stock in the company involved.
A lawyer for Hernandez said he still believed his client would win his case.
"We are going to go back to a jury now, and we think we can show this policy didn't exist," said Stephen G. Montoya of Phoenix. "This company rehired a significant number of employees who were let for go misconduct."