There are times in life when the lines are blurred; when what seems right may not be so. And unfortunately for most of us, we can never foresee when that situation will arise.

Back in August, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit against a carrier for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The carrier, EEOC said, violated the law due to its treatment of a truck driver who self-reported a substance-abuse problem. According to EEOC, the driver was removed from a permanent driving position after he reported that he had a problem with alcohol. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, seeks reinstatement to the driving position for the employee as well as monetary damages.

“The ADA mandates that persons with disabilities have an equal opportunity to achieve in the workplace. [The carrier's] policy and practice of never returning an employee who self-reports an alcohol problem to a driving position violates that law,” said Katharine Kores, director of the EEOC's Memphis District Office, whose jurisdiction includes 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.”

According to EEOC, in late 2009, the unnamed driver reported that he believed he had an alcohol problem. The company immediately removed him from his driving responsibilities and referred him to substance abuse counseling. It was then, EEOC contends, that the carrier informed the driver he would never be allowed to return to the road. EEOC claims that because alcoholism is a recognized disability under the ADA, that treatment of the driver violated both ADA and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 “by conditioning reassignment to non-driving positions on the enrollment in an alcohol treatment program.”

While not knowing the specifics of the case, this type of case creates a very sticky position for both the carrier and driver. Because alcoholism is a protected illness under ADA, a carrier cannot legally remove a driver from his position. Conversely, if a carrier places a driver on the road who is known to have a substance-abuse problem, it would likely take only minutes for a jury to return a guilty verdict against the carrier should that driver relapse and kill someone in a crash.

The court itself has an interesting dilemma. Does it allow a company to remove a driver from his position for fear of a future relapse that may not happen? Or does it force a carrier to abide by the law and return a driver to his position, thereby putting not only the carrier's financial future at risk but possibly hundreds of jobs and innocent lives?

And if it allows carriers to remove drivers who self-report substance-abuse problems, will this only encourage drivers with alcohol and drug problems to remain silent and continue driving without getting the help they need, thereby putting even more lives at risk?

By law, the decision seems simple, and the court could write a narrow decision that only addresses this particular case. On the other hand, it seems like this is ripe for a broader opinion. Truck drivers are not retail cashiers who don't put lives at risk when they work. There is a broader public safety at stake here, and it will be interesting to see if the court attacks that issue.


Brian Straight is Fleet Owner's managing editor. He can be reached at bstraight@fleetowner.com