Safety and OSHA News

Truck driver fired for alcoholism diagnosis: Was termination against law?

Federal rules say a current diagnosis of alcoholism prohibits an employee from driving commercial trucks. So why was this company hauled into court when it fired an employee who could no longer drive under this rule? 

Sakera Jarvela was a truck driver for Crete Carrier Corp. in Georgia. While employed by Crete, he sought treatment for alcohol abuse. His doctor diagnosed him with alcoholism and referred him to an outpatient treatment program. Jarvela took Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) time off to complete the program.

After completing the program within the leave time, Jarvela immediately sought to return to work. Crete’s vice president for safety decided Jarvela no longer met the qualifications to be a commercial truck driver for the company. Crete fired Jarvela who then sued the company.

In his lawsuit, Jarvela alleged Crete:

  • discriminated against him based on his disability (alcoholism) in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • failed to return him to his former job following his FMLA leave, and
  • retaliated against him for taking FMLA leave.

A federal district court granted Crete summary judgment, effectively throwing out all the parts of Jarvela’s lawsuit.

The former truck driver took his case to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Was he qualified to drive?

To prove his ADA claim, Jarvela had to show he was a “qualified individual” for his job as a truck driver.

Crete’s job description said its commercial truck drivers had to qualify both under U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations and the company’s own policies.

DOT regs say a person isn’t qualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle if he has a “current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism.”

Jarvela argued that only a DOT medical examiner could determine that. Crete said it’s up to the employer.

The court sided with the company given its reading of federal regulations. DOT regulations place the burden on the employer to show an employee meets all qualifications. That would include determining if someone suffers from a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism. The court found Crete did just that.

DOT regs are vague on what counts as “current.” But the court noted that DOT regs are minimum requirements. Crete’s policy stated anyone who had a diagnosis of alcoholism within the past five years couldn’t drive for the company.

The court said it found no problem with Crete’s policy and how it handled this situation.

On the interference with FMLA claim, the court noted that an employer can deny reinstatement following leave if it can show that it would have discharged the employee even if he hadn’t been on FMLA leave. Crete said under the circumstances, it would have discharged Jarvela if he had not taken leave. The court found that to be credible and dismissed the FMLA interference claim.

The court also found it was clear that Crete didn’t retaliate against Jarvela for taking FMLA leave.

So the 11th Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision in its entirety. Crete lawfully dismissed Jarvela because of his recent diagnosis of alcoholism.

The ruling is good news for companies with employees with commercial drivers’ licenses. You can fire or reassign workers who have had a recent diagnosis of alcoholism. The key: Crete had its own written policy on the issue and followed it and the DOT regs.

What do you think about the court’s ruling? Let us know in the comments.

(Jarvela v. Crete Carrier Corp., U.S. Circuit Crt. 11, No. 13-11601, 6/18/14)

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Comments

  1. This makes it to where an employee would then hide the fact of said alcholism, skip treatment to save his job.

  2. Dr. Jonas Moses says:

    As the Director of Health and Safety for a company engaged in laboratory and clean room consulting and certification, responsible for the safety oversight of both construction and technical crews, I completely understand the importance of, and fully endorse, maintaining a drug-free workplace. Alcohol, when abused, is every bit as much a drug as cocaine or marijuana, and its use/abuse cannot be tolerated on the job — whether operating a company vehicle, an aerial lift, a piece of equipment or merely engaged in manual labor. Impaired judgement and reflexes, under such circumstances, spell certain calamity for those “under the influence,” as well as their colleagues and anyone else proximal to thus-affected workers.

    However, as a former clinician, and Life Sciences professional, I find this particular ruling concerning. What is the point of the FMLA, and voluntary drug/alcohol treatment programs, if not to protect the rights of workers, as well as the companies that employ them? No, I do not condone this worker’s alcoholism. However, it is apparent that he recognized his condition and took positive medical action, to address it. What sense, then, is there in having a federal rule (or for sanctioning a company’s rule) stating that a “diagnosis” of a disease state — even after it has been treated — is grounds for termination?

    Here in the United States, we suffer our celebrities, leaders and other public figures a plethora of misanthropies and misbehaviors — with frequent and repeated alcohol and drug abuse-related visits to treatment centers, topping the list. Almost universally, once they have completed treatment, not only are they welcomed, opened-armed, back into the public fold, many are rewarded with sympathy and renewed interest. Yet, when a truck driver recognizes he has an alcohol abuse problem and seeks appropriate medical treatment for it, he is fired from his job, as his reward for accepting responsibility for aberrant behavior and taking action to correct it. Hm… where is the justice in our system, then?

    Drug and alcohol abuse, in the workplace or…anywhere: a bad idea. And what about a government that both encourages responsibility for self and then punishes those who embrace this ideology…?

    This is a deeply-flawed process, and must be addressed, to assure the success and sustainability of programs such as the FMLA, and various drug/alcohol abuse treatment efforts.

    Respectfully, Dr. Jonas Moses

    • Brian Edge says:

      This person is driving an 80K truck down the road……Some people, when treated for a condition, have a relapse. The trucking company would be irresponsible by putting this driver behind the wheel right away. I would have rather them reassign this person to work in another capacity instead of discharge! The driver did seek help on their own…?

  3. Dr Jonas Moses, I enjoyed your article, if fact you helped to increase my vocabulary (thanks). However, the issue regarding FMLA (in this case) is a mote point. This truck driver should be appreciative the the company allow it, even though their intent was to Fire him. It would seem, and I would hope that the time used did indeed help him. But, Crete’s policy stated anyone who had a diagnosis of alcoholism within the past five years couldn’t drive for the company. Except his FMLA, and “sobriety” lasted for six years, he in no way should have expected his job back. I do understand the acceptance of others in our society regarding abuse (drugs and alcohol) and how we disdain that, and them, and see double standards regarding “the person” and the punishment, but this is where Written policy comes in to play. And, knock On Wood for every company who stand by those policies, and the justice system who back them up…

    • If the guy didn’t tell them, he would probably still have his job……

      • Matt, you are probable right, but he applied for FMLA. He would have had to disclose his reasoning for applying. I do also agree with Brian Edge, that a reassignment to a non-safety sensitive, non driving position would have been more palatable, but policy is policy and Crete stood by it. I’m sure this driver knew of this policy before he hired on..

  4. I’m all for giving people second chances when they have human failings, that’s not really the issue here though. The analogy of the celebrities, leaders and public figures isn’t an accurate comparison either. We’re not talking about buying a movie ticket or a magazine because of the movie stars. We’re not talking about the Mayor of Toronto smoking crack cocaine, because that doesn’t directly affect any one of us. We’re talking here about a truck driver operating an 80 thousand pound piece of equipment at 70 mph on the same roads that all our families drive. There should be direction from the licensing agencies on how this situation should be handled. It shouldn’t be the discretion of individuals in companies that don’t have any accountability.
    I don’t know for certain, but I would imagine that people who seek treatment for alcoholism do so following traumatic incidents. The alcohol may have affected decision making which led to an incident. And it’s good that they seek treatment, but I would think that the decision to seek treatment came when they are sober. It is a huge risk to expect a truck driver, alone in a cab, away from home, to self report if he’s had a relapse. And like I already said, the decision to allow that risk shouldn’t be left to a manager of a trucking company.

  5. Veronika Meaney says:

    Thought-provoking commentary , Apropos , if your company needs a DoT 649-F(6045) , my husband discovered a template version here http://goo.gl/HiYwy2

  6. Thomas A says:

    You know what I think? I think that there are too many drivers on the road with alcohol and substance abuse issues and this is a classic story of why drivers don’t seek treatment and end up killing others on the road whole under the influence of alcohol or other substances. I mean you really got to want to change your life if you voulentarily seek treatment for these issues. Good God.

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