Sunday, September 18, 2011

Government Files Suit Against Trucking Company For Dismissing Alcoholic Driver

A North Carolina based trucking company is being taken to court by the government for firing an alcoholic truck driver- a move the US Equal Employment Opportunities Commission claims is in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

Thomasville, NC-based Old Dominion Freight Line [NASDAQ: ODFL] dismissed a driver in June 2009 based in an Arkansas service center. The driver, Charles Grams, had approached company supervisors and informed them he had a drinking problem

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit this week arguing that Old Dominion Freight Line discriminated against Charles Grams by stripping him of his position and offering him a demotion even if he completed a substance abuse counseling program

Instead, the EEOC argued, the North Carolina-based company, which has a service center in Arkansas, should have complied with the law, known as the ADA, while ensuring safety.

“The ADA mandates that persons with disabilities have an equal opportunity to achieve in the workplace,” said Katharine Kores, director of the EEOCs Memphis District Office, which covers Arkansas. “While the EEOC agrees that an employer’s concern regarding safety on our highways is a legitimate issue, an employer can both ensure safety and comply with the ADA.”

The EEOC says alcoholism is a recognized disability under the ADA and that the company violated the law with its policy that bans any driver who admits alcohol abuse from driving again.

The EEOC wants the company to reinstate Grams and another affected driver to their previous positions and provide them with back pay, compensatory and punitive damages and compensation for lost benefits. The EEOC is also seeking to block the company’s alcohol-related policy.

Joel McCarty, general counsel to Old Dominion, wouldn’t comment on the details of the pending litigation. But he told, “We intend to vigorously defend our position.”

When asked to respond to EEOC’s comments and rationale behind the lawsuit, McCarty said, “Obviously, we disagree with their position totally.”

“Our concern is safety,” he said. “And that’s why we intend to defend the policy.”

According to the EEOC’s suit, Grams, who had been with Old Dominion for five years without incident, informed the company in June 2009 that he believed he had an alcohol problem.

The company suspended him from his driving position, which paid him nearly $22 per hour, including benefits. In compliance with U.S. Transportation Department regulations, Grams met with a substance abuse professional who notified the company that Grams would participate in an outpatient treatment program and could return to work.

But Old Dominion told Grams that he wouldn’t be allowed to drive again for the company and instead offered him a part-time position as a dock worker as soon as it became available. The position paid $12 per hour without benefits, the lawsuit alleges.

Grams then decided he couldn't afford treatment because he believed he would have to pay for it upfront and be reimbursed by his insurance company only if it approved the treatment. Instead, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Old Dominion fired him in July for job abandonment.

The EEOC contends that the company's actions deprived Grams and other affected drivers of "equal employment opportunities and otherwise adversely affect their status as employees, in violation of the ADA."

"Grams is a qualified individual with a disability under ADA ... who can perform the essential functions of a driving position," the suit says, adding that Grams and other employees wouldn't need treatment to perform non-driving duties.
Does anybody else remember that King of the Hill episode where Hank hires this seemingly clean-cut guy to work at Strickland Propane only to learn that he's a drug addict? Then once he's hired, he's next to impossible to get rid of because he's a drug addict?

So this begs the question if Alcoholism is covered under the ADA, what about drug use? I mean the potential ramifications of a driver operating a commercial vehicle impaired and over the road is no different if that driver's been knocking back Jack Daniels or snorting cocaine. And moreover, the government is ordering that the company assume the risk and liability that comes with a driver with a history or alcohol or substance abuse.

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