Articles & Publications
Alcoholic Not So Anonymous: An Analysis of Jarvela v. Crete Carrier Corporation
Mar 02, 2015
Recently, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of a U.S. District Court in Georgia to grant summary judgment to an employer regarding various causes of action brought by an employee, who was discharged from his employment as a commercial driver due to a diagnosis of alcohol dependence. The plaintiff, Sakari Jarvela (“Jarvela”), took leave from his work with Crete Carrier Corporation (“Crete”) under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) to deal with alcohol abuse issues. He was discharged from a treatment center with a diagnosis of alcohol dependence, and one week later, Crete terminated him. Jarvela alleged Crete violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) as well as the FMLA.
In terms of Jarvela’s ADA claim, the ADA forbids a “covered entity” from discharging a “qualified individual on the basis of disability.” A plaintiff must show: (a) he/she is disabled; (b) he/she is a qualified individual, meaning the person satisfies all job-related requirements and can perform all essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation; and (c) the person suffered unlawful discrimination because of his or her disability. In upholding the district court’s decision, the Court of Appeals held Crete did not violate the ADA by terminating Jarvela because with Jarvela having a “current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism”, he was not qualified as a commercial driver under Department of Transportation (“DOT”) regulations. The Court stopped short of specifically addressing what the term “current” means in all contexts, but it found that the passage of time of seven days would certainly qualify as “current.”
Jarvela also claimed Crete interfered with his exercise of his rights under the FMLA, primarily by failing to return him to his position after he was ready to return from leave as required by the FMLA. In response, Crete pointed to its own job description, which required its drivers to qualify as over the road drivers pursuant to DOT regulations, as well as the applicable DOT regulation referenced above to establish it would have discharged Jarvela regardless of his taking FMLA leave once it learned of his current diagnosis. Consequently, the Court upheld the district court’s ruling that Jarvela’s interference claim must fail.
Finally, Jarvela contended Crete retaliated against him for exercising his FMLA rights related to his taking of leave. To make out such a claim, a person must show: (a) he/she engaged in statutorily protected activity; (b) he/she suffered an adverse employment decision; and (c) the adverse decision was causally related to the protected activity. The district court found Jarvela failed to show Crete’s decision to terminate him was casually related to his taking FMLA leave. The Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s finding, specifically noting that the individual that ultimately fired Jarvela was unaware he had even taken FMLA leave; the primary documents he reviewed in reaching his decision terminate Jarvela did not mention FMLA leave in any respects. The Court of Appeals noted the timing of Plaintiff’s taking of and returning from leave coupled with his termination did not in and of itself establish a causal connection between his activity and the employment decision.
For those in the trucking industry, it is imperative to remain in compliance with DOT regulations, and having a driver with a diagnosed alcohol problem raises concerns. Such businesses should develop protocols for maintaining compliance consistent with applicable law, including the ADA and the FMLA.
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