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5th Circuit Clarifies Department of Transportation Commercial License Medical Requirements and Their Impact on ADA Disability Discrimination Suits

In an Opinion issued in June 2016, Williams v. J.B. Hunt, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals held that dismissal of a commercial driver's Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) discrimination claim was appropriate based on the driver's failure to establish a prima facie case of discrimination, but not for lack of subject matter jurisdiction as held by the lower court.

In this case, Williams, a commercial driver, fainted while at his home and was diagnosed with syncope and ventricular tachycardia by his doctor. About a month later, Williams was cleared to return to work by the same doctor; however, on the date he returned to work, Williams visited a second doctor with whom he did not share his prior diagnoses. When the employer received apparently conflicting reports from each doctor, a third doctor was contacted and ultimately rescinded Williams' DOT certification "until further clarification is received." Under Federal Department of Transportation (DOT) rules, all commercial drivers must have a "current medical examiner's certificate that he or she is physically qualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle." However, Williams neither submitted additional documentation nor filed an application with the DOT, under 49 C.F.R. § 391.47, to resolve the conflict.

Following his termination for lack of a valid medical certificate, Williams filed a disability discrimination charge with the EEOC and instituted a civil suit. The district court dismissed the claim on jurisdictional grounds based on Williams' failure to exhaust administrative remedies prior to filing suit.

On appeal, the 5th Circuit reasoned that the correct disposition was to grant summary judgment for failure to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Specifically, in order to sue for discrimination under the ADA, the plaintiff must show: "(1) the plaintiff has a disability, or was regarded as disabled; (2) he was qualified for the job; and (3) he was subject to an adverse employment decision on account of his disability." (Emphasis added).

The 5th Circuit concluded that Williams failed to establish that he was qualified for the job, because a physician rescinded his certification and review was never sought under Section 391.47. Thus, Williams' disability claim was properly dismissed because, in the absence of a contrary administrative finding through the regulatory appeals process, the conflicting doctor's reports effectively establish that Williams was not certified to drive, and consequently that Williams was not qualified for the job from which he was ultimately fired.

Takeaways:

· Commercial drivers must satisfy DOT regulations by being certified as physically fit to possess a commercial driver's license.

· If a commercial driver's medical certificate is revoked or contradicted by another doctor, the driver is no longer considered physically fit.

· In such cases, a commercial driver must pursue administrative resolution under 49 C.F.R. § 391.47 in order to establish that he was qualified for the job - an element of a discrimination claim brought under the ADA.

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