Court denies driver’s motion for summary judgment in ADA lawsuit

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

In a recent Legal Comment, we considered a situation in which a driver was not hired by a carrier because he was deaf. The driver sued the carrier under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claiming he was discriminated against based on his disability. We discussed how a track record of success with subsequent carriers could serve as strong evidence in that case supporting the driver’s position. Similar evidence is at the heart of the case discussed in this article.  

Background

The driver allegedly suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and mood disorder. The driver claims these disorders affect his major life activities of sleep, brain function, and ability to think thereby rendering him a person with a disability as that term is defined under the ADA. The driver additionally claims that his psychiatrist “prescribed an emotional support/service animal to assist [him] in coping with his disabilities and to maintain appropriate social interactions and workplace functions.”

The driver applied for a commercial truck driver position with the carrier. During the application process, the driver requested that he be permitted to have his dog with him in the truck so that the dog could provide emotional support when needed. The driver claims that this request constituted a request for a reasonable accommodation. The driver was not offered a position. The driver then filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which eventually led to the EEOC filing a lawsuit on the driver’s behalf against the carrier in federal court.

Arguments of the Parties

The driver moved for summary judgment on his ADA claim. The carrier responded by moving for summary judgment on this claim as well. A motion for summary judgment asks the court to enter judgment in the filing party’s favor without conducting a trial on the matter. A party defending against a motion for summary judgment can defeat the motion by negating at least one element of the moving party’s claim. In this case, in order to ultimately prevail on his ADA claim, the driver would need to prove the following elements: (1) he is disabled, (2) he is “qualified” to perform the essential functions of the job, and (3) a causal connection between an adverse employment action and the disability. Thus, in order to survive the driver’s motion, the carrier would have to show that there is at least a genuine factual dispute on one of these elements.

The carrier argued that the driver was not qualified to drive a commercial vehicle. As stated by the court, the carrier argued the driver was not qualified because he:

had been involuntarily civilly committed two months prior to the date on which [he] underwent a medical examination to receive clearance to drive commercially. Further, [the carrier] assert[ed] that [the driver] failed to disclose the full extent of his mental health history, including having a history of impulsive and destructive behaviors, anxiety, and blackouts. Defendants have brought evidence showing that had the medical examiner been aware of any of this information, the medical examiner would not have found [the driver] medically fit to drive commercially.

The driver argued he was “indisputably” qualified to perform the job because he had a commercial driver’s license and subsequently “successfully found employment as a long-haul truck driver with another company” following the carrier’s rejection of his application.

Court’s Decision

The court considered the parties’ arguments on this point and ultimately denied both the driver’s and the carrier’s motions for summary judgment. The court denied the motions on the ground that it found that a genuine dispute of material fact existed on the issue of whether the driver “could, despite his impairments, perform the essential functions of the job at the time [the driver] applied for a job with [the carrier].” The court noted that while evidence of the driver successfully driving for a different carrier subsequently was “probative on [the driver’s] ability to perform the duties of a commercial truck driver,” it was insufficient for purposes of the driver’s motion.

The court highlighted that in between the time of the driver’s rejection by the carrier and starting to drive for the subsequent carrier, the driver was civilly committed. Thus the court concluded it could not find that the driver’s “procurement of the subsequent job is sufficient to show that [the driver] was medically fit to drive at the time [the driver] applied for a job with the defendants.”

The court also concluded that the carrier had not done enough to conclusively prove at this stage of the proceedings that the driver was not qualified to drive commercially. As stated by the court:

Although defendants have brought evidence that [the driver] would not have passed the medical exam had the medical examiner been aware of [the driver’s] full psychiatric history, defendants have not cited legal authority showing that any alleged untruthful statements or omissions made during the medical exam would have rendered [the driver’s] state commercial driver’s license invalid.

Accordingly, the court denied both motions for summary judgment and allowed the case to proceed on the path to trial.

Takeaway

Service animals in commercial motor vehicles is a complicated issue. While the court’s decision here does not specifically analyze this issue, recent experiences with this issue can afford a few general insights. Critically, some service animals may be specifically trained to distract the driver when the animal senses the driver is experiencing stress. This could obviously be problematic for someone driving a vehicle. Accordingly, it is vital to consider the service animal’s training when analyzing an accommodation request related to a service animal. In the event that the carrier determines—relying on medical or other objective evidence—that a driver poses a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the driver or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation, the carrier may be able to argue that the driver is not “qualified” under the ADA because he or she poses a “direct threat.”

Beyond the service animal issue, this case is interesting as it relates to the method of proof for proving an applicant was or was not “qualified” to drive a commercial motor vehicle under the ADA. Of course, carriers considering a first-time driver do not have the benefit of reviewing the driver’s prior driving experience when evaluating a driver’s employment application. However, carriers may wish to take into account the circumstances they will find themselves in if they reject an applicant based on a safety concern. Careful, reasoned analysis that is well-documented is critical when deciding such issues.

R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow.  You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at rew@kingballow.com.  The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.