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Jury Finds the Termination of an Alcohol Abusing Driver to be a Violation of the ADA

From the Transportation & Logistics Law Blog by John Wilcox

Over the last several years, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (“EEOC”) has been particularly aggressive in its attempt to enforce anti-discrimination laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  The trucking industry certainly has not been immune from the EEOC’s efforts.  A recent example is the case of EEOC v. Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc., which was tried to the jury in the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas.

In Old Dominion, Charles Grams worked as an employee truck driver for the company for five years.  During that time period, he did not have any major accidents or incidents.  On Monday, June 29, 2009, Grams telephoned his supervisor and reported that he drank too much the weekend before, that he thought he was an alcoholic and he was going to an AA meeting.  In response, Old Dominion removed Grams from his driving position and required him to be evaluated by a DOT qualified substance abuse professional.  Old Dominion had an unwritten policy that once someone is Grams’ position is returned to work, it would be in a non-driving position and that he would never be returned to a driving position.  Grams was evaluated by a substance abuse professional who recommended outpatient treatment.  Ultimately, Grams reported that he could not afford treatment and was fired.  The EEOC brought suit on behalf of Grams claiming that Grams was denied reasonable accommodation and that his termination was in violation of the ADA.

In this case, the EEOC brought suit against the company because it wouldn’t allow a driver who self-reported an alcohol problem to drive a truck.  At first blush, this seems prudent.  It does not take any great leap to imagine what would have happened had Old Dominion knowingly put an alcoholic, or even a recovered alcoholic on the road, and an accident happened.

Despite this, the District Court, in ruling on a summary judgment motion, found that Old Dominion’s no return policy violates the ADA as a matter of law.  On January 16, 2015, after a weeklong trial, the jury found that Old Dominion did discriminate against Grams in violation of the ADA.  The jury awarded Grams back pay in the amount of $119,612.97.

The Old Dominion case highlights the interplay and conflict between the EEOC’s enforcement of federal employment law with trucking and transportation law.  Specifically, 49 CFR 392.3 provides that a motor carrier shall not require or permit a driver to operate a CMV, while the driver’s ability or alertness is so impaired, or so likely to become impaired, through fatigue, illness or any other cause, as to make it unsafe for him or her to begin or continue to operate a motor vehicle.  In addition, 49 CFR 40.305 provides that an employer doesn’t have to return an alcoholic to a safety-sensitive position, even if the driver has complied with the prescribed treatment.  Rather, it is deemed to be a personnel decision based on the employer’s discretion, subject to collective bargaining agreements or other legal requirements.

The EEOC takes the position that motor carriers do not have any such discretion.  Rather, the EEOC argues that a carrier cannot take a driver with an alcohol problem off the road under the ADA without making a determination “based on individualized factual data” that “there exists a high probability of substantial harm.”

This case places motor carriers in a precarious position.  Given the nature of their job, truck drivers are often far from home, with little supervision.  From a safety standpoint, in makes perfect sense for a motor carrier to take the position that a driver with an alcohol problem (past or present) should not be entrusted with an 80,000 lb. tractor-trailer.  The EEOC’s enforcement efforts hamper the industry’s efforts to make trucking as safe as possible.

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