Seyfarth Synopsis: Recently decided court case finds that motor vehicle carriers may lawfully require overweight drivers to submit to a medical examination testing for obstructive sleep apnea.

We had previously blogged about the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the “Evaluation of Safety Sensitive Personnel for Moderate-to-Severe Obstructive Sleep Apnea.” 47 Fed. Reg. 12642 (March 10, 2016). The American Journal of Industrial Medicine, with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), had found that U.S. long-haul truck drivers were twice as likely to be obese compared to the adult working population, as well as more likely to smoke and suffer from other risk factors for chronic disease. “Obesity and Other Risk Factors: The National Survey of U.S. Long-Haul Truck Driver Health and Injury” (Jan. 2014).

An interesting Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals case, Parker v. Crete Carrier Corp., et al., No. 16-1371 (8th Cir. Oct. 12, 2016), delves into the underlying issues related to these previous blogs. Notably, the oral argument in front of the Court is available for listening.

Crete Carrier Corporation (Crete) required its truck drivers with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 35 or greater to submit to medical examinations to determine whether they had obstructive sleep apnea. Drivers found to have obstructive sleep apnea were placed in a treatment regimen. One driver, Robert J. Parker, refused to submit to the examination. In response, Crete stopped giving Parker work. Parker then sued Crete, alleging it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by requiring the examination and discriminating on the basis of a perceived disability. The District Court granted summary judgment to Crete. Parker appealed.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires commercial vehicle drivers to get medical examinations every two years to ensure they are physically qualified to operate commercial vehicles. The exam measures height and weight, assesses health history, tests vision, hearing, blood pressure and urine, and physically examines body systems. Two advisory committees, the Medical Review Board and the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee, have recommended that FMCSA amend its certification standards to reduce the risks from drivers who have obstructive sleep apnea.

When analyzing Parker’s claim against Crete, the court noted that an employer requiring a particular class of employees to get a medical exam must show that the exam is job-related and that it is a “business necessity.” To constitute a “business necessity,” there must be a reasonable basis for concluding that the class of drivers required to be examined poses a genuine safety risk. Moreover, the employer’s exam requirement must enable the employer to reduce that risk.

The Eighth Circuit concluded that Crete’s suspension of Parker was not a violation of the ADA because Parker refused to submit to a lawful medical examination. Crete factually established that “untreated obstructive sleep apnea tends to impair driving skills, increasing the risk of motor vehicle accidents by 1.2- to 4.9-fold.” Moreover, “a sleep study is the only way to confirm or rule out an obstructive sleep apnea diagnosis.” Because obesity and BMIs above 33 are closely linked to obstructive sleep apnea and seeking treatment for sleep apnea decreases the risk of motor vehicle accidents, the Court found that the sleep study requirement for overweight drivers was a business necessity.

In light of the findings on sleep apnea, employers in the long-haul trucking industry should pay attention for changes in the law related to enhanced driver testing requirements, and ensure that any driver testing policies for a subset of drivers would constitute a business necessity in the eyes of the courts.