Disability discrimination claims can be very tricky. The determination of what constitutes a protected "disability" must be made on a case-by-case basis. Many medical conditions are easily protected as disabilities, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but others are not so clear. That is what makes the recent 11th Circuit decision, upholding the termination of an alcoholic truck driver, so interesting.
Court rules in favor of employer
The 11th Circuit recently ruled in favor of Crete Carrier Corporation in an employment discrimination case. Crete terminated one of its truck drivers after he was diagnosed with alcoholism. The driver had sued for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and also had interference and retaliation claims under the Family and Medical Leave Act. What makes this case interesting is the fact that alcoholism is considered a "disability" within the meaning of the ADA, and employers are often required to make reasonable accommodations to employees with alcoholism. So, how did Crete win this case?
DOT regulations regarding the operation of a commercial motor vehicle
The regulations of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) state that an individual is not qualified to operate a commercial motor vehicle if he has a "current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism." The tricky part is, that this regulation does not define what those terms mean. Nonetheless, the employer retains the authority to determine whether the employee is able to work. In the case involving Crete, the company had a policy which allowed for termination of any driver who had a diagnosis of alcoholism in the past five years.
The employee's contentions against Crete
The driver in the Crete case, argued that he had only been diagnosed with alcoholism for six weeks at the time of his termination. The driver also argued that only a DOT medical examiner could make the necessary determination. However, the court rejected his argument, holding that the DOT regulations clearly permit the employer to make the final determination regarding who is qualified to drive a commercial truck.
The Court's reasoning in favor of Crete
Since the DOT regulations "place the onus on the employer to make sure each employee is qualified to drive a commercial vehicle," the court said, "the employer must determine whether someone suffers from a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism." Consequently, the Crete employee was unable to meet an essential job function as described in his written job description.
What does this case mean for disability discrimination?
Alcoholism is a "disability" within the meaning of the ADA, and employers may have to make reasonable accommodations to employees with alcoholism. However, the ADA also provides that, if another federal law, such as the DOT regulations, prohibits the employment of someone based on a medical condition, then a covered employer can obey that law without violating the ADA.
The ambiguity of the DOT regulations
The language of this particular DOT regulation is somewhat vague. It states that a person with a "current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism" is not qualified to drive. As such, employers in the transportation industry may need to consider transferring an alcoholic driver to a non-driving position as a reasonable accommodation.
If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced employment attorneys at Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.