The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ruled that a freight transportation company did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other antidiscrimination laws when it fired an alcoholic employee who violated a Return to Work (RWA) agreement. In Ostrowski v. Con-way Freight, the RWA violation occurred when the employee suffered a relapse after returning from a leave of absence to undergo rehabilitation for alcoholism.

The plaintiff appealed a district court ruling favoring the employer in his lawsuit, which alleged that his firing violated the ADA, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The Third Circuit holding is in line with numerous other courts that have recognized that terminating an employee who violates an RWA does not run afoul of the ADA or other applicable law.

The plaintiff had been employed with Con-way Freight, Inc., as a Driver Sales Representative (DSR). U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations require Con-way to maintain strict drug and alcohol screening policies for its DSR employees. In 2009, the plaintiff requested a leave of absence under the FMLA to enter an alcohol rehabilitation program. Con-way approved his request and did not discipline him as a result of his leave. Upon his return to work, however, Con-way required the plaintiff to sign an RWA in which he agreed to remain “free of drugs and alcohol (on company time as well as off company time) for the duration of his employment.”

Within a month of signing the RWA, the plaintiff entered an alcohol abuse treatment center after he resumed drinking alcohol. Approximately two weeks later, Con-way terminated his employment.

In affirming summary judgment, the Third Circuit held that the plaintiff was unable to establish that his discharge violated the ADA, PHRA, or FMLA. Notably, the court held that the plaintiff could not prove that Con-way’s reliance on the RWA was a pretext for unlawful discrimination.

In addition, the court held that the plaintiff could not prove that the RWA violated the ADA’s prohibition of “qualification standards, employment tests or other selection criteria that screen out an individual with a disability.” Relying on precedent from the Sixth and Eighth Circuits, the court held that employers do not violate the ADA merely by entering into RWAs that impose employment conditions different from those of other employees. The court acknowledged the plaintiff was subject to different standards than other employees who did not sign a RWA, but explained that this stemmed from the terms of his RWA rather than from disability discrimination.

Importantly, the court noted that the RWA did not restrict the ability of individuals who suffer from alcoholism to work at Con-way. Instead, the RWA merely prohibited any employee who is subject to it from consuming alcohol.

The court also affirmed summary judgment on the plaintiff’s FMLA claim, holding that he submitted no evidence suggesting that Con-way would not have discharged him had he not requested FMLA protected leave. The court further held that the RWA did not interfere with the plaintiff exercising his rights under the FMLA because Con-way requested the RWA in accordance with its obligations under the DOT regulations to maintain strict alcohol policies for covered employees.

The court’s holding should give employers confidence when it becomes necessary to terminate an employee with a substance abuse problem who has entered into a properly constructed and applied RWA.

Attorneys in Ballard Spahr’s Labor and Employment Group routinely advise employers on their obligations under the ADA, PHRA, and FMLA. For more information, please contact Brian D. Pedrow at 215.864.8108 or pedrow@ballardspahr.com, or the Ballard Spahr attorney with whom you work.


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