Sixth Circuit: National Security Exception Doesn’t Diminish Employer’s Obligation Not to Engage in Disability Discrimination

The government’s interest in protecting national security, including national security information, can be very wide-ranging. However, based upon a recent ruling issued by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, national security exceptions do not allow a government-run nuclear power plant to revoke a medical clearance in a way that constitutes discrimination. The ruling means that, without an applicable exception, the employer must face the disability discrimination claim of a nuclear plant officer who was fired after failing a pulmonary function test and losing his medical clearance.

In this case, the employer that was sued was the Tennessee Valley Authority. James Hale was a plant officer at one of the TVA’s nuclear power plants in east Tennessee. The TVA required all of its plant officers to maintain a medical clearance in order to continue working as plant officers. In 2013, the TVA altered the medical clearance requirements, adding a requirement that plant officers complete and pass a periodic pulmonary function test.

Hale, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (better known by the acronym COPD), failed his pulmonary function test and lost his medical clearance. The TVA then terminated his employment.

This led Hale to sue. The TVA, he argued, committed disability discrimination when it terminated his employment in the manner it did. The TVA asked the court to dismiss the case, advancing an unusual argument. The TVA argued that, under federal law, the court lacked the authority to hear the case. A lesser-known provision of the law, which related to national security, dictated that the federal courts could not review “the physical-fitness requirements imposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.” The TVA also argued that, under a U.S. Supreme Court decision released in 1988, the federal courts lacked the authority to review the TVA’s decision to revoke Hale’s medical clearance because it was a matter of national security.

The trial court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals were not persuaded by the TVA’s arguments and concluded that Hale was allowed to continue pursuing his disability discrimination case. The national security exception simply didn’t apply to the type of discrimination case Hale brought, and the TVA had not shown the court anything to the contrary. The appeals court noted in its opinion that it had “not found, nor has the TVA cited, anything in the legislative history … that firmly establishes the applicability of the exemption” to a scenario like Hale’s.

The TVA’s second argument similarly fell short. The appeals court noted that the 1988 case, Department of the Navy v. Egan, involved a Navy employee who had his security clearance revoked due to his criminal record and drinking problems. The Sixth Circuit noted that, in the years since the Egan ruling, courts had only applied the Egan decision’s holding to cases involving security clearances, rather than other clearances like medical ones. The exception’s basis was grounded in the need to protect national security information, which might be an issue in a security clearance dispute but not in a termination arising from a decision regarding “whether an individual has the physical capacity to guard a nuclear plant.”

There are many parts, some well-known and some less so, of Title VII and its prohibitions against disability discrimination. The skilled Tennessee disability discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert have spent many years helping both employers and employees and are ready and equipped to help you with your issue.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:,

11th Circuit Says Employer Not Required to Adopt Reporter’s Suggested Disability Accommodations, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, March 24, 2016

Lack of Proof that Employer Knew About Employee’s Disability Dooms ADA Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Jan. 20, 2016

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