Persons with contagious diseases are handicapped and protected from job loss
because of the disease under federal laws preventing discrimination, the Supreme Court ruled.
The 7-2 decision Tuesday was considered important by many host of business, insurance and medical groups because it is the high court's first review of this complicated issue and could become a precedent for employer relations with those with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.This is a case that has generated as much attention for what it is not about - AIDS - as what it will decide: Whether a person with tuberculosis is a handicapped individual protected by federal law against various forms of discrimination, Richard L. Roe, assistant professor of law at Georgetown University explained prior to the ruling.
The justices attempted to dampen the AIDS comparisons in a footnote.
They noted that the Justice Department had used the example of a person who is a carrier of the AIDS virus to argue that discrimination based on contagiousness is never discrimination based on a handicap.
But the Supreme Court said the argument is misplaced in this case, because the handicap here, tuberculosis, gave rise both to a physical impairment and to contagiousness.
Thus the justices said they would not determine in this case whether a carrier of a contagious disease such as AIDS could be considered to have a physical impairment, or whether such a person could be considered, solely on the basis of contagiousness, a handicapped person . . .
The decision involved a Florida school teacher, Gene H. Arline, dismissed
from her job because she suffered a third relapse of tuberculosis.
The particular handicapped statute involved is one that prohibits federally funded state programs from discriminating against those with handicaps.
It would be unfair to allow an employer to seize upon the distinction between the effects of a disease on others and the effects of a disease on a patient and use that distinction to justify discriminatory treatment, Justice William J. Brennan wrote for the majority.
He argued that courts will have to give case by case observation to determine whether those with contagious diseases pose a serious health threat to others.
There is no justification, he said, for excluding from protection of the act all persons with actual or perceived contagious diseases.
The Health Insurance Association of America refused comment on the insurance issues involved in providing health and life insurance to these workers. An association spokesman said his organization regarded the opinion as an employer issue, not an insurance question