An Iowa court held that a mechanic who only moved vehicles on the premises of his workplace was a “driver” for purposes of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s drug and alcohol testing regulations.  Hargrove v. Mail Contractors of America Inc., No. 3-186/12-1210 (Iowa Ct. App. April 24, 2013).

The mechanic was fired by his employer based on the results of a random drug test.  The mechanic filed suit, alleging that the employer violated Iowa’s drug testing law and that he was wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy.  The employer asserted that due to a contract with the U.S. Postal Service, it was required to conduct its operations in accordance with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (“DOT”) regulations, and therefore, the mechanic’s claims under state law were preempted by federal law.  Iowa’s drug testing statute explicitly states that it does not apply to employees required to be tested under federal regulations.

The mechanic argued that he did not operate commercial motor vehicles and therefore was not subject to DOT drug and alcohol testing regulations.  He conceded that his job required him to possess a commercial driver’s license and to be able to drive a semi truck.  However, he stated that as a practical matter, he did not drive on public roads, and that he only drove a vehicle from the yard into the shop for repairs.

Based on the plain language of the DOT regulations, the court held that the mechanic was, in fact, a driver subject to DOT’s drug and alcohol testing regulations.  Those regulations define “driver” to include “any person who operates a commercial motor vehicle” including “casual, intermittent or occasional drivers.”  49 C.F.R. § 382.107.

The court further stated that the employer’s vehicles were used in commerce to transport mail in accordance with the U.S. Postal Service contract.  Given that the mechanic agreed that he operated the vehicles on occasion, he was a “driver” subject to DOT drug and alcohol testing regulations.  His state law claims therefore were dismissed because they were preempted by federal law.

DOT-regulated employers should not always assume that commercial motor vehicle drivers who do not drive “over the road” or cross state lines are not covered by DOT’s drug and alcohol testing regulations.  As this case highlights, the definitions of “driver” and “commercial motor vehicle” contained in the DOT testing regulations are rather broad.