- The Eighth Circuit & the ADA, Part I: Court Tips the Scale in Employer’s Favor in Suit Challenging Sleep Test for Overweight Workers
- November 9, 2016 | Authors: Andrew P. Burnside; Sarah Smith Kuehnel; Erin E. Williams
- Law Firms: Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. - New Orleans Office ; Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. - St. Louis Office
In Parker v. Crete Carrier Corporation, et al, No. 16-1371 (October 12, 2016), the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a trucking company complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in requiring its drivers with body mass indexes (BMI) of 35 or above to undergo in-lab sleep studies to determine if they had sleep apnea, which could cause them to fall asleep at the wheel.
Crete implemented the challenged medical testing program in 2010 based on recommendations from two advisory committees to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The committees recommended testing drivers with high BMIs to reduce the risk of accidents from drivers who have obstructive sleep apnea. The idea behind the recommendation was that obesity causes sleep apnea, which interrupts sleep, inducing drowsiness during work hours. The testing Crete instituted complied with the DOT’s recommendations.
In 2013, Crete advised Parker that it was scheduling him for an in-lab sleep study because his BMI was over 35. Parker refused to undergo the test, providing a note from a certified physician assistant stating that the test was not medically necessary. Crete took him out of the driving rotation.
In his ensuing lawsuit before the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska, Parker alleged that requiring a medical examination violated the ADA. The Eighth Circuit explained that while medical exams must be job-related and consistent with business necessity, “[c]ourts will readily find a business necessity if an employer can demonstrate ... a medical examination or inquiry is necessary to determine ... whether the employee can perform job-related duties when the employer can identify legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons to doubt the employee’s capacity to perform his or her duties.”
The court concluded that the sleep test was job-related since it concerned a condition that might impair driving. Crete also demonstrated that a business necessity existed because an examination is necessary to determine whether sleep apnea exists, and an in-lab sleep study is the best way to diagnose the condition. Further, it was reasonable for Crete to suspect Parker of sleep apnea given his BMI and expert testimony on the correlation between high BMIs and obstructive sleep apnea. As such, Crete had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons to doubt Parker’s ability to perform his job duties.
Parker’s assertion that his lack of documented sleep issues at work, the doctor’s note, his receipt of a DOT certification, and his award for five years of accident-free driving should have excluded him from the class subject to testing did not persuade the Eighth Circuit, which explained: “None of the characteristics establish that he does not suffer from sleep apnea. Crete carries its burden of showing it defined the class reasonably.”
The court also rejected Parker’s claim that Crete discriminated against him by regarding him as having a disability. The court found that Crete’s only reason for suspending Parker was his refusal to undergo the sleep apnea testing, and Parker admitted that this reason was genuine. Since the undisputed evidence showed that Crete suspended Parker for refusing to submit to a lawful medical examination, Parker’s claim that he was regarded as disabled also failed. As a result, the Eighth Circuit upheld summary judgment for Crete on both ADA claims.
Part two of this series discusses Kowitz v. Trinity Health, et al in which a split panel of the Eighth Circuit reversed summary judgment for an employer on a reasonable accommodation claim.