The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) both provide protections for employees to help ensure fair treatment when burdened with conditions outside of their control. Though employers must abide by these Acts, they must also consider their own liability when it comes to the actions of their employees. Employers have a duty and responsibility to do what is best for all stakeholders, including the general public. A recent case in Georgia, Sakari Jarvela v. Crete Carrier Corporation, addressed this issue when a diagnosed alcoholic over-the-road commercial motor vehicle driver was terminated from his position after six and a half years of employment.
Sakari Jarvela sued his former employer, Crete Carrier Corporation, a motor carrier regulated by the Department of Transportation (DOT), asserting various claims under the ADA and FMLA upon his termination in April of 2010. Crete was granted summary judgment by the District Court which concluded they did not violate either of the Acts. This opinion was affirmed by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upon appeal in January 2015.
March 2010 - Jarvela reported difficulties with alcohol use to his personal physician who diagnosed him with alcohol dependence and referred him to an intensive outpatient treatment program.
Jarvela requested, and was granted by Crete, unpaid FMLA leave for duration of his treatment.
April 20, 2010 - Jarvela completed the 30-day program and was granted a Crete-prepared Return to Work Certification by his personal physician with no restrictions.
A letter from his primary treatment counselor suggested he attend at least three AA/NA meetings per week, continuing care meetings once per week and stay in contact with his sponsor but that his prognosis was “fair to good” and he was able to return to his regular work responsibilities as a Commercial DOT Driver without restriction.
April 26, 2010 - per a Crete standard operating procedure, Jarvela completed a fitness-for-duty examination by a Crete-appointed medical examination contractor and was given a “six month card.”
April 27, 2010 - Jarvela reported to work and was terminated.
Jarvela’s Complaints and the Court’s Opinions
Count I - Jarvela alleged that Crete terminated him in violation of the ADA.
Court’s Opinion: The Americans with Disabilities Act forbids a covered entity from discharging a qualified individual on the basis of disability. Jarvela was unable to produce evidence sufficient to persuade a reasonable jury that at the time he was terminated he “satisfied the requisite skill, experience, education and other job-related requirements of the employment position” from which Crete terminated him, and that, “with or without reasonable accommodation, he could perform the essential functions of the position.” and therefore was not a qualified individual.
Critical to the court’s decision regarding the ADA claim was the existence of a written job description which outlined essential duties and responsibilities in compliance with DOT regulations. With alcoholism widely understood to be a chronic and lifelong diagnosis, and noted as such by all of the doctors which treated Jarvela, he did not meet the DOT’s physical qualification standards which precluded him from performing an essential function of his job as a motor vehicle driver.
Count II - Jarvela alleged that Crete’s failure to reinstate him upon the conclusion of his approved leave constituted interference and retaliation under the FMLA.
Court’s Opinion: The District Court found the FMLA interference claim meritless because of unrebutted record evidence indicating that, regardless of Jarvela’s FMLA leave, Crete would have terminated him because of his “current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism.” The District Court found the FMLA retaliation claim meritless because Jarvela failed to produce evidence of the required causal connection between his taking FMLA leave and his termination.
Some may wonder if Crete would have been wiser not to grant the FMLA request at all and terminate Jarvela immediately once they learned of the condition that rendered him unqualified for his position. The FMLA entitles employees only to unpaid leave, so in this case, Crete’s decision to grant the leave was prudent. While they likely incurred insurance-related costs for the employee’s medical treatment, they may have been more vulnerable to litigation had they not.
Employees are often the most important and valuable assets of an organization and every reasonable accommodation should be made in order to keep qualified individuals working, happy, motivated and safe. Unfortunately there are situations in which circumstances or the actions of employees force employers to make difficult decisions in order to limit the liability they face and promote a safe and positive environment for the rest of the organization and with the public. The ADA and FMLA are not get-out-of-jail-free cards that employees can use to protect their jobs at all costs though these Acts are strictly enforced. If there are any questions as to whether a termination is legal, it is best to consult an attorney prior to the termination.
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