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U.S. Supreme Court

School Bd. of Nassau County v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273 (1987)

School Board of Nassau County, Florida v. Arline

No. 85-1277

Argued December 3, 1986

Decided March 3, 1987

480 U.S. 273


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (Act), provides, inter alia, that no "otherwise qualified handicapped individual," as defined in 29 U.S.C. § 706(7), shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from participation in any program receiving federal financial assistance. Section 706(7)(B) defines "handicapped individual" to mean any person who

"(i) has a physical . . . impairment which substantially limits one or more of [his] major life activities, (ii) has a record of such an impairment, or (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment."

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations define "physical impairment" to mean, inter alia, any physiological disorder affecting the respiratory system, and define "major life activities" to include working. Respondent was hospitalized for tuberculosis in 1957. The disease went into remission for the next 20 years, during which time respondent began teaching elementary school in Florida. In 1977, March, 1978, and November, 1978, respondent had relapses, after the latter two of which she was suspended with pay for the rest of the school year. At the end of the 1978-1979 school year, petitioners discharged her after a hearing because of the continued recurrence of tuberculosis. After she was denied relief in state administrative proceedings, she brought suit in Federal District Court, alleging a violation of § 504. The District Court held that she was not a "handicapped person" under the Act, but that, even assuming she were, she was not "qualified" to teach elementary school. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that persons with contagious diseases are within § 504's coverage, and remanded for further findings as to whether respondent was "otherwise qualified" for her job.


1. A person afflicted with the contagious disease of tuberculosis may be a "handicapped individual" within the meaning of § 504. Pp. 480 U. S. 280-286.

(a) Respondent is a "handicapped individual" as defined in § 706 (7)(B) and the HHS regulations. Her hospitalization in 1957 for a disease that affected her respiratory system and that substantially limited "one or more of [her] major life activities" establishes that she has a "record of . . . impairment." Pp. 480 U. S. 280-281. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 480 U. S. 274

(b) The fact that a person with a record of impairment is also contagious does not remove that person from § 504's coverage. To allow an employer to justify discrimination by distinguishing between a disease's contagious effects on others and its physical effects on a patient would be unfair, would be contrary to § 706(7)(B)(iii) and the legislative history, which demonstrate Congress' concern about an impairment's effect on others, and would be inconsistent with § 504's basic purpose to ensure that handicapped individuals are not denied jobs because of the prejudice or ignorance of others. The Act replaces such fearful, reflexive reactions with actions based on reasoned and medically sound judgments as to whether contagious handicapped persons are "otherwise qualified" to do the job. Pp. 480 U. S. 281-286.

2. In most cases, in order to determine whether a person handicapped by contagious disease is "otherwise qualified" under § 504, the district court must conduct an individualized inquiry and make appropriate findings of fact, based on reasonable medical judgments given the state of medical knowledge, about (a) the nature of the risk (e.g., 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. In making these findings, courts normally should defer to the reasonable medical judgments of public health officials. Courts must then determine, in light of these findings, whether any "reasonable accommodation" can be made by the employer under the established standards for that inquiry. Pp. 480 U. S. 287-288.

3. Because the District Court did not make appropriate findings, it is impossible for this Court to determine whether respondent is "otherwise qualified" for the job of elementary school teacher, and the case is remanded for additional findings of fact. Pp. 480 U. S. 288-289.

772 F.2d 759, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, C.J.,filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA, J., joined, post, p. 480 U. S. 289. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 480 U. S. 275

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