It is not uncommon for employees with various medical conditions to be victims of different types of discrimination simultaneously. In some cases, discrimination based on a certain medical condition can violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Both statutes provide guidance on how to define the medical conditions that are protected by their provisions. Alcoholism is one of those conditions where, if diagnosed, can provide an employee with certain protections in the employment discrimination context. That is why a decision by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals is somewhat surprising.
Crete Carrier Corp. Employee Terminated for Alcoholism
This case began when Crete Carrier Corporation terminated a truck driver shortly after he was diagnosed with alcoholism. Crete based its decision on the DOT regulations that say anyone with a "current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism" does not meet the qualifications for operating a commercial motor vehicle. While these DOT regulations do not clearly define what it means to have a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism, they indicate clearly enough that an employer has the ultimate authority to decide whether a truck driver is fit for employment.
Discrimination Lawsuit Ensues
The terminated driver, as you might expect, filed a lawsuit against Crete for disability discrimination and for interference and retaliation under the FMLA. The employee argued that a clinical diagnosis of alcoholism and, ultimately, his ability to work could only be determined by a DOT medical examiner (who had issued him a half-year medical certification).
The Eleventh Circuit disagreed. The Court reasoned that, because the regulations "place the onus on the employer to make sure each employee is qualified to drive a commercial vehicle, the employer must determine whether someone suffers from a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism." Consequently, it was decided by the employer that the employee could not meet the basic. So, his termination was justified.
Why Is this Decision Surprising?
First, alcoholism is considered a "disability" as that term is defined under the ADA. This means that an employer may be required to provide reasonable accommodations for workers who have been diagnosed with alcoholism. Furthermore, the ADA states that if any other federal law, such as the DOT regulations at issue in the Crete case, allow an employer any latitude, the employer must fulfill its obligations under the ADA. For example, if a driver is not qualified to drive because of alcoholism, their employer may be required to find another position for them as an accommodation.
Requirement to Provide a Reasonable Accommodation
In addition to prohibiting discrimination based on disability, the ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for qualified employees, which means providing a modification or adjustment to enable the employee to have an equal job opportunity. This is only true if the employee actually requests an accommodation.
This requirement is not without limitations, of course. If it can be shown by the employer that the reasonable accommodation will impose an "undue hardship" on the employer, then that particular accommodation may not be required.
Have you been discriminated against? Do you have questions about your rights as an employee? Get in touch with our firm, Michel | King , to request your initial consultation with a Birmingham employment law attorney.