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.