A federal appeals court has upheld the dismissal of a commercial motor vehicle driver’s claims that his employer violated the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act when it fired him after learning of his alcoholism. Sakari Jarvela v. Crete Carrier Corporation, Case No. 13-11601 (11th Cir. June 18, 2014).
The Department of Transportation’s (“DOT”) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (“FMCSA”) regulations prohibit anyone with a “current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism” from driving commercial motor vehicles. 49 C.F.R. § 391.41(b)(13). In addition, Crete had a company policy prohibiting the employment of anyone as a commercial motor vehicle driver if he or she had been diagnosed with alcoholism in the past five years.
Jarvela worked for Crete for several years before he was diagnosed with alcoholism in 2010 and sought leave to obtain treatment. His request for FMLA leave was approved. After being out of work for approximately one month, Jarvela sought to return to work. Crete decided that Jarvela was no longer qualified to be a commercial motor vehicle driver, pursuant to FMCSA regulations and company policy. His employment was terminated.
Jarvela asserted claims under the ADA and FMLA, arguing that Crete discriminated against him due to his disability – alcoholism—and that the Company interfered with his FMLA rights and retaliated against him for exercising his FMLA rights. The lower court disagreed and granted summary judgment to Crete. The appellate court affirmed.
First, the appellate court held that Jarvela was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA because he was not physically qualified to drive under FMCSA regulations. The Court observed that it is the employer’s burden to ensure that a driver meets all FMCSA physical qualification standards. 49 C.F.R. § 391.11(a). Because FMCSA does not permit anyone with a “current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism” to drive, the employer must determine whether someone suffers from such a diagnosis. Crete determined that Jarvela was not physically qualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle and neither the lower court nor the appellate court found fault with that conclusion.
The appellate court also upheld the dismissal of the FMLA interference and retaliation claims. Jarvela’s FMLA interference claim failed because he would have been discharged regardless of whether he took FMLA leave. The retaliation claim failed because he could not show that his termination was related to his FMLA leave.
This case is important to DOT-regulated employers, as it shows that the courts will uphold an employer’s judgment concerning a driver’s physical qualifications to drive a commercial motor vehicle.