Eleventh Circuit Determines Whether “Test-Driving an Automobile” is an Essential Function of a FedEx Technician Position Under the ADA

In Richard Samson v. Federal Express Corporation, No. 12-14145 (March 26, 2014), the Eleventh Circuit reverses and remands a grant of summary judgment to Federal Express on Samson’s discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), 24 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq., and its Florida counterpart, the Florida Civil Rights Act (the “FCRA”).

Samson—a Type-1 insulin-dependent diabetic—applied for a position with the Federal Express Corporation (“FedEx”) as a Senior Global Vehicle Technician at its airport facility in Fort Myers, Florida. FedEx contends that an essential part of this position is for the technician to test-drive the trucks. Under Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (the “FMCSRs”), driving the trucks would require a ‘class A’ commercial driver’s license. Getting a ‘class A’ commercial driver’s license means passing a DOT medical exam. However, under DOT medical regulations, an insulin-dependent diabetic is not considered qualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle. Thus, under the job requirements, because Samson could not get a ‘class A’ driver’s license, he was not qualified for the position. Samson contended that the job requirement of driving the trucks was not essential for the position, and that it would be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA for others to drive the truck on the rare occasions it is required. The district court disagreed and held that test-driving the trucks was an essential function of the position, and that Samson is therefore not qualified for the position, as he could not drive the trucks with or without reasonable accommodation.

The Eleventh Circuit agreed that the threshold question is if there is a genuine factual dispute as to whether test-driving FedEx trucks is an essential function of the Technician position. The Court accorded FedEx’s opinion substantial weight, but also recognized that the employer’s judgment is not conclusive on its own. The Court went through a number of factors on either side, finding for FedEx that the function was included in the written job description, that there would be adverse consequences to not performing the function, and that the function was a “highly specialized” job function.  On Samson’s side, however, the Court found that there are others that could perform the function, and that the amount of time the Technician actually spends test-driving is miniscule—the incumbent job-holder had only test-driven FedEx trucks three times in the three years since he had gotten the job. The Court found that reasonable jurors could differ as to whether test-driving FedEx trucks is an essential function of the Technician position, and that therefore, the issue should not have been resolved as a matter of law.

FedEx also contended that the FMCSRs afforded it a complete defense, as the challenged qualification standard was required or necessitated by another Federal law or regulation. Based on the record, the Court found the incumbent job-holder had never driven any FedEx truck across state lines, and that the Fort Myer facility was located far from any state lines. The Court therefore found that the test-driving at issue does not constitute transporting property or passengers in interstate commerce. If there is no transportation of property or passengers in interstate commerce, the FMCSRs do not apply to the Technician position. FedEx is therefore not required to make DOT medical certification a prerequisite of the position, and the FMCSRs do not afford FedEx a defense to Samson’s disability discrimination claims. For those reasons, the case was reversed and remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

Judge Hill dissents, arguing that the majority erred on two points. First, the majority should not have based its analysis on whether the FMSCRs applied to the individual employee, but whether the employer transported property or passengers in interstate commerce—something FedEx obviously does. Also, even if the analysis is based on the individual, the fact that the Fort Myers facility was far from a state line should not be dispositive, as it leaves open the question as to how close to a state line a facility needs to be before the possibility of interstate travel becomes real. Second, as the FMSCRs apply, appellant must hold a commercial driver’s license and pass a DOT medical examination for the position. As appellant cannot pass those qualifications, FedEx correctly rescinded his conditional offer of employment, and the grant of summary judgment should have been affirmed.

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