A trucking company that fired a truck driver who had been diagnosed with alcohol dependency did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), according to a recent Eleventh Circuit ruling.
The plaintiff in the case was employed in Georgia by the defendant, a trucking company, as an over-the-road driver. In 2010, the plaintiff requested and was granted an FMLA leave of absence to care for a “serious health problem” after talking with his personal physician about his alcohol issues. Upon completion of a 30-day program at an inpatient substance abuse facility, the plaintiff’s physician certified that he was fit to return to work. A week after his discharge from the treatment program, the plaintiff was fired. The reason given was that his clinical diagnosis of chronic “alcohol dependence” made him unfit for his job according to company policy and DOT regulations.
The plaintiff sued his former employer for wrongful termination under the ADA and interference and retaliation under the FMLA. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia granted summary judgment on behalf of the defendant. The plaintiff appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.
To prove a wrongful termination claim under the ADA, the plaintiff must prove (1) that he is disabled, (2) that he is a qualified individual, and (3) that he suffered from unlawful discrimination because of his disability. The question before the Eleventh Circuit was whether the plaintiff was a qualified individual under the ADA. It held that he was not, and therefore the defendant was rightfully granted summary judgment on the ADA claim.
DOT regulations prohibit people with a “current diagnosis” of alcoholism from serving as truck drivers. Since the plaintiff’s diagnosis was described as “chronic,” it was reasonable for the employer to believe that he had a current diagnosis of alcohol dependence. Thus, the plaintiff was not eligible to be a truck driver according to DOT rules and therefore was not a qualified individual under the ADA.
With regard to the plaintiff’s FMLA claims, the Eleventh Circuit adopted similar reasoning. To sustain his FMLA interference claim, the plaintiff had to show that the trucking company denied him a benefit to which he was entitled. His contention was that he was denied the opportunity to return to work after his leave. However, the Eleventh Circuit disagreed because the defendant testified that the plaintiff would have been fired regardless of whether or not he was granted FMLA leave. Finally, the court affirmed the dismissal of the FMLA retaliation claim because the plaintiff produced insufficient evidence to show a causal connection between his protected activity, the FMLA leave, and the adverse decision, his firing.
Georgia workers fired for asserting a protected right or because of a disability may have a claim under federal law. However, there are often unforeseen complications that an experienced attorney may be able to anticipate. The Atlanta wrongful termination attorneys of Parks, Chesin & Walbert can help you if you were wrongly fired. To schedule a free consultation, call 404-873-8048.