Passing a DOT medical exam is a ‘marginal function’ of the job?

published in McAfee & Taft EmployerLINC | April 10, 2014

By Kathy Neal

In a recent opinion by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals involving a Type-1 insulin-dependent diabetic, the court found that passing a Department of Transportation medical examination was an impermissible “qualification standard” under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Are you scratching your heads? Here’s the court’s logic.

A conditional offer of employment

FedEx_trucksFedEx offered Richard Samson, an experienced vehicle mechanic, a job as senior global vehicle technician/DOT/CDL conditioned upon Samson passing a DOT medical exam as required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) for commercial motor vehicle drivers who transport property or passengers in interstate commerce. FedEx employs technicians to maintain, troubleshoot and repairs its trucks. The FedEx job description requires technicians to meet FMCSR qualifications. Under the FMCSR, insulin-dependent diabetics are automatically disqualified from being medically certified as physically qualified to operate a commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce.

When Samson failed the DOT medical exam due to his diabetes, FedEx withdrew its employment offer, claiming Samson did not qualify for the technician position. Samson sued for disability discrimination.

Do you actually do what your job description says you do?

The court first looked at the job description and compared its listed essential functions to what technicians really do. Remember, essential functions are the “fundamental job duties” of the employment position, but do not include the “marginal functions of the position.” Based upon the evidence presented, the court determined that summary judgment on this basis was inappropriate because while there was some evidence that supported a finding that test-driving interstate vehicles was an essential function, other evidence that supported a finding that test-driving was a marginal function. In fact, as it turned out there were nine other licensed truck drivers at the particular FedEx facility among whom test-driving responsibilities could be distributed. The person who was hired in place of Samson testified that the amount of time he actually spends test-driving was low – in three years, he had only test-driven FedEx trucks three times. Other technicians throughout the state test-drive an average of 3.71 hours per year. The court concluded, however, that reasonable jurors could differ as to whether test-driving FedEx trucks is an essential function of the technician position. This question should have been left for determination by the jury, and the court was wrong to rule as a matter of law.

The court then determined whether the FMCSR provided FedEx a complete defense to Samson’s claims, assuming that test-driving was an essential function of the job. The court said the focus should be on whether the position for which Samson applied required the transport of property or passengers in interstate commerce – not on the nature of the employer’s whole business. According to the court, whether the FMCSR obliged Samson to obtain DOT medical certification hinged on whether the test-driving constituted transportation of property or passengers in interstate commerce.

Based on the record before the court, it concluded that test-driving did not constitute transporting property or passengers in interstate commerce. The incumbent technician testified he had never test-driven a FedEx vehicle across state lines or test-driven a FedEx vehicle carrying cargo. As a result, the court concluded that the occasional test-driving of empty FedEx trucks within the state did not constitute the transportation of property or passengers in interstate commerce. As a result, the FMCSR did not oblige FedEx to require Samson to obtain DOT medical certification to be qualified for the technician position, meaning the FMCSR did not provide a defense to the disability discrimination claim. The court reversed and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings, including a determination of whether summary judgment should be entered for Samson on his claim that FedEx’s medical examination requirement is an impermissible qualification standard.

The takeaway

Most of us given these facts would have immediately assumed that if a job description required the ability to test-drive trucks that are driven in interstate commerce, passing a DOT physical would be essential to the determination of whether an applicant is qualified. Here, the underlying facts establishing just how infrequently test-driving is required undercut the prior determination of test-driving being an essential function of the job. This case illustrates just how important it is to really analyze what functions must be performed in a particular position and how critical the line between essential function and marginal functions can be.