The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that companies do not have to provide special accommodations for employes who do not smoke and want a smoke-free work environment.
The court upheld an earlier ruling by a D.C. Superior Court judge in the case of Adel Gordon, an environmental analyst for Raven Systems and Research, who claimed she was fired from her $14,000 a year job in 1979 because she refused to work in an office with smokers.
Gordon maintained that she is allergic to all types of tobacco smoke.
"Common law does not impose upon an employer the duty or burden to conform his workplace to the particular needs or sensitivities of an individual employe," Judge William C. Pryor wrote for a three-judge appeals panel.
The decision concluded that it is up to a jurisdiction's legislative body, in this case the D.C. City Council, to make laws protecting nonsmokers.
The City Council has passed a law banning smoking in public places, such as meeting rooms and elevators in public buildings. The Council has considered requiring no smoking areas in restaurants and businesses, but such measures were never passed.
The appeals court decision affects all private employers in the city, according to Ronald C. Jessamy, Raven's attorney. "It sets a standard by a judicial body that says private employers do not have to put themselves through undue expenses trying to get their product out," Jessamy said.
Harris Ammerman, Gordon's attorney, had argued that Raven was required under D.C. common law to provide its employes with a "safe place to work," which in Gordon's case meant a smoke-free environment.
Raymond Mott, Raven's president, maintained during the trial that the company, which is a scientific data processing and research firm in Southwest, tried to accommodate Gordon's request to work away from smokers. Mott said that Gordon was fired because of unauthorized absences from work, insubordination and an inability to work with other staff members.
John F. Banzhaf III, who also represented Gordon, said yesterday that the appeals court decision goes against the recent trend among judicial and administrative bodies to rule in favor of nonsmokers.
Banzhaf, who also heads an antismoking group called Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), said there have been at least 12 decisions by courts or administrative bodies in recent years in support of non-smokers, including a decision by the Merit Systems Protection Review Board that held in a recent case that federal employes who are sensitive to cigarette smoke must be considered handicapped persons and entitled to special accommodations.
Banzhaf also said the Equal Employment Opportunites Commission has ruled that persons who are allergic to cigarette smoke must be treated under the law as handicapped persons.
Gordon, 36, who sought to be reinstated to her job with back pay, said yesterday she was "disappointed" by the ruling. "I hope the City Council will soon pass a bill that will protect people in my situation," she said.
Gordon said she is now employed as a laboratory science teacher at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington.
Maryland and Virginia courts have not taken up the question of no-smoking areas in businesses.