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Effective Interactive Process Results in Dismissal of Truck Driver’s Disability Lawsuit

By:  R. Eddie Wayland, TCA General Counsel

A federal district court in Illinois recently rejected a truck driver’s allegation that his employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Generally, to prevail on a disability claim under the ADA an employee must prove that he was a qualified individual with a disability, that his employer was aware of the disability, and that the employer failed to provide a reasonable accommodation. Under the ADA, employers are required to engage in an interactive process to determine the extent of the employee’s limitations imposed by the disability to determine if the employee can still perform the essential functions of the position with or without a reasonable accommodation. This interactive process is an obligation that should not be discharged lightly. As this recent case highlights, if done properly, it can prevent a case from going to trial.

The Lawsuit

The employee driver worked for a company that owned grocery stores and operated a distribution center in Illinois. In addition to delivering and unloading groceries at the various company stores, the driver was responsible for moving trailers around the distribution center as a spotter. Some employees worked exclusively as spotters, and the company held these employees to the same standard as its drivers—maintain a commercial driver’s license and meet the physical requirements of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety regulations.

The driver had worked for the company since 1977. In November of 2007, the driver hurt his back after boxes of turkeys fell on him while he was unloading his truck. The company assigned him to temporary light duty office work due to his injury. Additionally, the company sent the driver to treatment, and the physician prescribed narcotic pain medication. By January 2008, the driver’s physician took him off work completely, and the driver took a leave of absence and had surgery on his back.

In January 2010, the driver underwent a functional capacity evaluation, but he refused to participate in some of the tasks due to pain. The company requested that the driver undergo an independent medical examination, and the driver did so. The doctor concluded that the driver was permanently restricted to lifting no more than 25 pounds and should avoid repetitive bending.

On May 5, 2010, the driver met with company representatives to determine whether the company could provide a reasonable accommodation that would allow the driver to work within his restrictions. The driver mentioned that it had been painful to drive to the meeting, and he had to stand up for part of the meeting due to prolonged sitting causing pain.

At the meeting, they discussed the possibility of moving the driver to a spotter position and possibly installing a swivel seat in the spotter jeep to alleviate any twisting issues. The driver mentioned he was still taking narcotic medication, however, which would prevent him from passing the DOT physical. They also discussed the possibility of the driver transferring to a dispatcher position, but the driver stated he lacked the necessary computer skills for the position. The driver also asked if he could serve on the safety committee, but they informed him that no full-time positions on the committee existed. At the conclusion of the meeting, the company informed the driver that he would have to remain on a leave of absence but he should contact them if any of his restrictions changed so they could reconsider accommodations. The driver subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, the company unlawfully discriminated against him under the ADA by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation.

Court Not Persuaded

The court noted the company did not dispute that the driver had a disability under the ADA, but argued that he was not a “qualified individual with a disability.” The court noted the ADA defines a “qualified individual with a disability” as an “individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” The court found it clear that the driver could no longer drive for the company with or without a reasonable accommodation because he did not meet the DOT regulations for commercial drivers, as he was using narcotics.

Turning to the possible alternative, available positions with the company, the court found it undisputed that the driver was not qualified for the dispatcher position because he lacked the requisite computer skills. The driver argued he was qualified for the spotter position, and the DOT regulations do not apply to the position. While not addressing the question as to whether the DOT regulations would apply to the spotter position, the court held the driver failed to show that it would be a reasonable accommodation for the company to alter its policy to allow him to drive a spotter jeep when he was using narcotics. The court stated “[r]equiring [the company] to allow … an employee who was using narcotics when he requested the spotter position—to drive spotter jeeps would put [the company] on a razor’s edge—liable to [the employee] if it refuses to let him drive spotter jeeps and liable to anyone [the employee] injures if it knowingly allows him to drive.” The court found that “[s]uch an accommodation would not be reasonable, as a matter of law.” Therefore, the court found the driver was not a qualified individual under the ADA and dismissed his claim.

Takeaway

This case highlights a good example of the interactive process under the ADA. The court found clear evidence that the company complied with its obligations. The proper approach to the interactive process and the effective implementation of such a process not only is in compliance with a company’s legal obligation under the ADA but it also can provide the basis for a good defense to a subsequent ADA claim, as happened in this case. Under the ADA, the good faith establishment of an interactive reasonable accommodation process and the effective implementation of that process when situations arise help ensure legal compliance and make good business sense.

R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow. You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at rew@kingballow.com. The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.

December 2, 2014

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