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)