Is an Alcoholic Truck Driver Qualified to Sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

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Is an Alcoholic Truck Driver Qualified to Sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

In order to prevail in a case under The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) a plaintiff must show three things: (1) he is disabled; (2) he is a qualified individual; and (3) he suffered unlawful discrimination because of his disability. What, exactly is a "qualified individual"? The ADA defines "qualified individual" as one who "satisfies the requisite skill, experience, education and other job-related requirements of the employment position such individual holds or desires and with, or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of such position." Sounds like legal jargon, but it essentially means one who possesses the skills required for the job.

Is an alcoholic whose job entails driving a commercial vehicle a "qualified individual"? And who decides, the employer or the Department of Transportation? According to a case decided yesterday by the 11 th Circuit Court of Appeals, the employer decides.

Sakari Jarvela worked for Crete Carrier Corp., a trucking company, from about November 2003 until April 2010, aside from a brief period between late 2007 and early 2008, according to court papers. In March 2010, he sought treatment for alcohol abuse, after which his personal physician diagnosed him as suffering from alcoholism and referred him to an intensive outpatient treatment program.

Jarvela told Crete of his need for FMLA leave, which the company approved from Mar. 18, 2010, until June 6, 2010, court papers said. After he finished his treatment program on Apr. 20 of that year, he tried to return to work immediately, but Crete's vice president for safety fired him.

Jarvela sued, alleging Crete had discriminated against him in violation of the ADA based on his alcoholism and that he was entitled to back pay, compensatory and punitive damages, and other relief. He contended that only a Department of Transportation medical examiner could determine whether he had a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism, and that a medical examiner had implicitly found he didn't suffer from such a diagnosis upon issuing him a six-month medical certificate that meant he was medically qualified to drive a commercial truck.

Crete replied that the plaintiff wasn't covered by the federal law because he wasn't qualified to be a commercial truck driver and that the employer, not the Department of Transportation, is to determine whether an employee is suffering from alcoholism and thus is not a qualified employee.

The court agreed with Crete. "Since 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." Crete made just such a determination, and since Jarvela was not qualified to drive a truck, he could not claim discrimination under the ADA.

Jarvela had also brought FMLA interference and retaliation claims against Crete for not returning him to his former job or an equivalent position following his leave. But the appeals court agreed with the lower court that ample evidence showed Crete would have fired him upon learning of his diagnosis of alcohol dependence, and that there was sufficient evidence showing that the company's vice president for safety was unaware Jarvela had gone on FMLA leave.

The takeaway? If you are considering filing a claim under the ADA, make sure you meet your employer's qualifications for your current job. Should you need help in navigating this complicated field, contact the attorneys at Schwartz & Perry LLP.

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