Sakari Jarvela worked as a commercial truck driver for Crete Carrier Corporation from November 2003 until April 2010. At some point, Jarvela developed a problem with alcohol abuse. He sought treatment in March 2010. Jarvela's physician diagnosed him as suffering with alcoholism and referred him to an outpatient treatment program. Jarvela requested leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which Crete approved. Jarvela completed his treatment program in April 2010 and immediately sought to return to work, only one and a half months after being diagnosed with alcoholism. Crete maintains a company policy that prohibits it from employing anyone who has had a diagnosis of alcoholism within the past five years. The Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations prohibit anyone with a currently clinical diagnosis of alcoholism from driving commercial trucks. Thus, Ray Coulter, Crete's vice president for safety, determined that Jarvela no longer met the qualifications to be a commercial truck driver for Crete, and terminated his employment.
Jarvela filed suit against Crete alleging that it discriminated against him on the basis of his disability – alcoholism – in violation of the ADA, and that it interfered with his FMLA rights and retaliated against him. The district court granted Crete's motion for summary judgment, and Jarvela appealed. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
In order to state a claim under the ADA, an employee must show that he is disabled, he is a qualified individual, and he suffered unlawful discrimination because of his disability. A qualified individual is one who satisfies the requisite skill, education, experience, and other job-related requirements of his employment position and can perform the essential functions with or without a reasonable accommodation.
The job description for Jarvela's position requires the employee to qualify as a commercial driver pursuant to both DOT regulations and Crete company policies. Under the DOT regulations, a person is not qualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle if he has a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism. The Court of Appeals interpreted the phrase "current clinical diagnosis" to mean an individual who suffers from alcohol dependency. However, the Court of Appeals noted that the DOT regulations do not address who makes the final determination of whether an employee has a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism – the employer or the medical provider.
Jarvela argued that only a DOT medical examiner could determine whether he had a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism. Jarvela further argued that the medical examiner found he did not suffer from a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism because the examiner issued him a six-month medical certificate. Because an examiner is only supposed to issue this certificate if the individual is medically qualified to drive, Jarvela argued that the examiner implicitly found that he did not suffer from a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism.
Crete argued that the DOT regulations place the burden on an employer to ensure that an employee meets all qualification standards. Because the regulations place the onus on the employer to make sure that each employee is qualified to drive a commercial vehicle, the employer must determine whether someone suffers from a clinical diagnosis of alcoholism. Crete determined that Jarvela had a current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism. Neither the district court nor the Court of Appeals found any fault with Crete's determination. Therefore, the district court correctly found that Crete did not violate the ADA.
In order to state a claim for FMLA interference, the employee only needs to demonstrate that he was entitled to a benefit that the employer denied. An employee has a right to be restored to his position of employment, or an equivalent position, following FMLA leave. However, an employer can deny reinstatement if it can demonstrate that it would have discharged the employee even if he had not been on FMLA leave. Here, Crete provided evidence that it would have discharged Jarvela regardless of his FMLA leave due to his diagnosis of alcohol dependence, and Jarvela failed to present any evidence disputing it. Therefore, Jarvela's interference claim failed.
Jarvela's retaliation claim similarly failed. According to Coulter, who terminated Jarvela's employment, he played no part in approving Jarvela's FMLA request and did not know Jarvela was on FMLA leave. Jarvela presented no evidence to rebut Coulter's testimony. Jarvela bore the burden of proving knowledge, and failed to do so. Thus, the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in Crete's favor.
This case was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and is not binding on the Ninth Circuit. However, the Ninth Circuit could view it as persuasive authority if faced with a similar issue.
In this case, the issue was not whether alcoholism is considered a disability. Alcoholism is generally recognized as a disability under both the ADA and FEHA. Therefore, depending on the circumstances, an employer may need to provide an alcoholic a reasonable accommodation. However, the ADA allows employers to hold alcoholics to the same performance standards as other employees. Therefore, an employee may be terminated for misconduct, even if the misconduct was related to the employee's alcoholism.
Jarvela v. Crete Carrier Corp. (11th Cir. 2014) __ F.3d __ [2014 WL 2750112].