By: Gena B. Usenheimer and Samuel Sverdlov

Of the issues arising under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), few are more nuanced and complex than an employer’s rights and responsibilities regarding employees with an alcohol addiction or dependence.  Commercial truck drivers present a unique issue as companies that employ drivers to spend long hours on the road present safety concerns that are not present in all industries.  Yet, such companies are not exempt from the requirements of the ADA (and similar state and city laws) that prohibit discrimination against an employee who is a “qualified individual with a disability.”

Under the ADA, determining whether an employee is a “qualified individual with a disability” involves a two-step inquiry.  First, to be “disabled” an individual must have “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual,” “a record of such impairment,” or is “regarded as having such impairment.”  Such individuals are “qualified” when they can “satisfy the requisite skill, experience, education and other job-related requirements” and “perform essential functions of a position with or without reasonable accommodation.”

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently addressed the issue of an employer’s liability for terminating a commercial truck driver who suffered from alcoholism, a condition that is often considered a disability under the ADA.  The focus of the Court’s analysis was on the relevant Department of Transportation (“DOT”) regulations which provide that a person with a “current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism” is not qualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle.  The regulations do not, however, instruct who makes the final determination of whether an employee has a current diagnosis of alcoholism—the employer or the DOT (or other) medical provider.  And this is where the dispute arose:  following the plaintiff-employee’s leave of absence to receive treatment for alcoholism, he obtained clearance by a DOT medical examiner that he was fit to return to work.  However, the defendant-employer received contrary guidance from the plaintiff’s alcohol treatment counselor, who diagnosed him with “alcohol dependence or alcoholism.”

The plaintiff argued that the DOT medical examiner determined he did not suffer from a current diagnosis of alcoholism, as evidenced by his having cleared the plaintiff to return to work, and that the DOT’s finding should be determinative with respect to this ability to drive a commercial truck.  The defendant, in contrast, argued that it is the employer’s obligation to make the final determination as to who is qualified to drive a commercial truck and that the treatment counselor’s diagnosis provided objectively reasonable evidence that the plaintiff did suffer from a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism.  The Eleventh Circuit agreed with the defendant, finding DOT regulations place the onus on an employer to ensure its employees are qualified to drive a commercial vehicle.  Based on this, and the diagnosis from the treatment counselor, the Eleventh Circuit agreed that the defendant reasonably determined the Plaintiff was not qualified under the DOT regulations to drive a commercial vehicle and therefore did not violate the ADA in refusing to reinstate him.

While this decision appears to signal some leeway for employers in determining whether employees are qualified individuals with a disability, the Court’s holding will likely be limited to the particular facts of the case as DOT regulations apply to a niche subset of employers.  And while the heightened public safety concerns present in this case were not specifically addressed by the Court, they no doubt played a role in its decision.  Accordingly, employers operating outside of the DOT sphere should still continue to exercise caution when seeking to terminate or otherwise discipline employees with alcohol addictions.