The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has charged in a lawsuit that Manitowoc, Wisconsin-based Orion Energy Systems violated federal law by requiring an employee to submit to medical exams and inquiries that were not job-related and consistent with business necessity as part of a wellness program, which was not voluntary, and then by firing the employee when she objected to the program. Read the rest of this entry »
The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ruled that relying on the post office to deliver a letter may not be adequate. The 3rd Circuit said that in this age of computerized communications, it is not expecting too much to require businesses that wish to avoid a material dispute about the receipt of a letter to use some form of mailing that includes verifiable receipt when mailing something as important as a legally mandated notice. Read the rest of this entry »
The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has ruled that an individual who cannot drive a commercial truck under Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations is not a qualified individual under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The 11th Circuit also held that the employee’s discharge did not violate the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
The case is Jarvela v. Crete Carrier Corp.
Many Americans suffer from alcoholism. Sakera Jarvela, a commercial truck driver, is one of those individuals. DOT regulations prohibit anyone with a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism from driving commercial trucks. Jarvela’s employer, Crete Carrier Corporation, contended that it maintains a company policy that prohibits it from employing anyone who has had a diagnosis of alcoholism within the past five years. Crete maintained that this safety-based rule is a business necessity. Thus, after Jarvela’s physician diagnosed him as suffering from alcoholism, Crete dismissed him—citing both the DOT regulations and its company policy. Jarvela subsequently filed suit against Crete, alleging that Crete violated both the ADA and the FMLA by terminating him. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Crete on all of Jarvela’s claims, and Jarvela appealed. The 11th Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.
Crete employed Jarvela as a commercial truck driver from around November 2003 until April 2010. In March 2010 he sought treatment for alcohol abuse. His personal physician diagnosed him as suffering from alcoholism and referred him to an intensive outpatient treatment program. Jarvela then notified Crete of his need for FMLA leave, and Crete approved leave from March 18, 2010, until June 6, 2010. Jarvela completed his treatment program on April 20, 2010, and immediately sought to return to work. Crete’s vice president for safety, Ray Coulter, decided that Jarvela no longer met the qualifications to be a commercial truck driver for Crete. Coulter terminated Jarvela’s employment—leading to the suit.
Simply put, the principal issue on appeal was whether Crete violated the ADA by terminating Jarvela. To determine this, the 11th Circuit first addressed whether Jarvela was a qualified individual under the ADA. Furthermore, to answer that question the Court had to address who makes the final decision on whether he is a qualified individual—his medical provider or his employer. Jarvela also took issue with the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Crete on his FMLA claims. The 11th Circuit briefly addressed this issue.
Jarvela asserted a number of contentions in his briefs. The most pertinent one was the contention that he was a qualified individual under the ADA. Crete rebuted this contention, instead arguing that Jarvela was not a qualified individual under the ADA because he was not qualified to be a commercial truck driver for Crete under either DOT regulations or Crete’s company policy.
Jarvela contended that Crete interfered with his rights under the FMLA by failing to return him to the same or an equivalent position upon returning from FMLA leave. Jarvela also contended that Crete retaliated against him by terminating him for availing himself of his rights under the FMLA. Crete contended that it did not interfere with his rights under the FMLA, because it would have terminated him regardless of his FMLA leave. Crete also contended that Jarvela failed to show a causal connection.
The DOT regulations specify that a person is not qualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle if he has a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism. The DOT regulations provide only minimal guidance on what constitutes a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism. The regulations only say that “[t]he term ‘current clinical diagnosis’ is specifically designed to encompass a current alcoholic illness or those instances where the individual’s physical condition has not fully stabilized, regardless of the time element.”
Whether Jarvela was a qualified individual turns on whether he had a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism. The DOT regulations make clear that an employer makes the final determination of who is a qualified individual to drive a commercial truck. But the regulations do not say who makes the final determination of whether an employee has a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism.
Jarvela contended that only a DOT medical examiner could determine whether he had a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism. Jarvela argued a DOT medical examiner implicitly found that he did not suffer from a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism because the examiner issued him a six-month medical certificate. A DOT certified examiner is supposed to issue a medical certificate only if an individual is medically qualified to drive a commercial truck. Crete contended that an employer must make the final determination of whether an employee suffers from a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism.
The 11th Circuit concluded that Crete had the better argument. DOT regulations unambiguously place the burden on an employer to ensure that an employee meets all qualification standards. 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.
Because the 11th Circuit determined that Jarvela was not entitled to drive a commercial truck under the DOT regulations, it did not need to address Crete’s company policy.
Jarvela contended that Crete improperly denied him the benefit of returning to the same or an equivalent position following his FMLA leave. Crete contended that it would have discharged Jarvela upon his diagnosis of alcoholism regardless of whether he took FMLA leave. The district court found that Crete put forward evidence that it would have discharged Jarvela regardless of his FMLA leave. The 11th Circuit agreed with the district court’s determination that Jarvela’s interference claim failed.
The district court held that Jarvela failed to show that the decision to terminate him was causally related to his leave and that his retaliation claim therefore failed. Jarvela argued that two factors sufficiently established a causal connection: Coulter—Crete’s vice president who fired him—had access to his personal file containing a notation that he was out on FMLA leave and that his termination occurred as he attempted to return from FMLA leave. Crete argued that Coulter did not have actual knowledge that Jarvela was returning from FMLA leave.
The 11th Circuit said Crete again had the better position. Coulter said that he played no part in approving Jarvela’s FMLA leave request and that he was unaware Jarvela had taken FMLA leave. And he said that he only reviewed certain parts of Jarvela’s records before terminating him and that none of the parts he reviewed mentioned Jarvela’s FMLA leave. Furthermore, two of the most important documents Coulter relied on in terminating Jarvela—a letter from Jarvela’s alcohol treatment counselor and a discharge form from Jarvela’s treatment program—did not mention in any way the FMLA. Jarvela bore the burden to prove actual knowledge and he presented no evidence to rebut Coulter’s testimony. Temporal proximity alone is insufficient to establish a causal connection in the absence of actual knowledge by Coulter. Accordingly, summary judgment in favor of Crete on Jarvela’s retaliation claim was properly granted.
This case can give some comfort to employers who are subject to both DOT regulations and the ADA. Given the liberalized definition of a qualified individual under the ADA Amendments Act, this is one of the rare situations where the focus was on whether or not a person was a qualified individual.
Connecticut has amended its paid sick leave law to make some changes that will make compliance easier for some employers. The changes are effective January 1, 2015. Read the rest of this entry »
The City of Newark Department of Child and Family Well-Being has published answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) regarding the City’s new Paid Sick Time Ordinance. Original indications were that the law would be effective in May; however, the announcement says the Ordinance becomes effective on June 21, 2014. Read the rest of this entry »
The United States Court Of Appeals for The Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s judgment, after a jury trial, in favor of the defendant in an action under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and its California equivalent. The panel held that the district court did not err in denying the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment because an employee can affirmatively decline to use FMLA leave, even if the underlying reason for seeking leave would have invoked FMLA protection. Read the rest of this entry »
The Minnesota Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA) is a law with multiple parts affecting wages, unemployment benefits, leave rights and protections for pregnant and nursing mothers, among other things. Some of the provisions of this new law took effect immediately, while others have later effective dates. Read the rest of this entry »