- A railway company did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it terminated a locomotive engineer whose heart condition put him at risk for sudden loss of consciousness, posing a direct threat to safety, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held (Anderson v. Norfolk Southern Railway Company, No. 21-1735 (3rd Cir. April 11, 2022)).
- The job involved driving freight trains, working near moving machinery and carrying equipment. It also required the engineer to remain alert and monitor various gauges and meters to make sure the trains, which often sped through densely populated areas and carried hazardous cargo, operated safely. After suffering several unexplained falls, he was diagnosed with Brugada's Syndrome, a serious and lifelong condition that disrupts the heart's normal rhythm and can cause unconsciousness or death. To treat the syndrome, the engineer had an automated defibrillator, known as an ICD, installed in his heart. But the ICD had its own risks, namely that it could send powerful shocks that could knock him down and cause him to lose awareness, and railway equipment could disrupt its functioning.
- The railway company determined that the engineer could not safely work in his job and deemed him medically unfit to continue. It found him other jobs that were a good fit for his condition, but he rejected them because they required him to relocate. The company fired him, and he sued for discrimination under the ADA. A federal district court ruled for the company, and the 3rd Circuit upheld the ruling. It said the engineer was not qualified for the job and therefore not entitled to the ADA's protection because he posed a direct threat, which is defined as a substantial risk of harm to his or other's safety that cannot be eliminated by reasonable accommodation.
The Federal Railroad Administration considers the jobs of a locomotive engineer and conductor to be "safety-sensitive," meaning their performance implicates the safety of fellow workers and the public. Even so, under the ADA, the railway company had to individually assess the engineer's present ability to safely perform the job's essential functions.
The railway company met that obligation, the court said. It did so by properly relying on "the most current medical knowledge and/or on the best available objective evidence," court documents showed. This included reviewing the engineer's medical records, his physician's letter and medical opinions regarding the impact of arrhythmia and ICDs on the operation of commercial vehicles. The ADA did not require it to consult a cardiac specialist.
The railway also properly considered direct threat risk factors set out in the ADA regulations, such as the duration of the risk and whether the risk of potential harm is imminent. Given the high stakes involved, the risks here were significant, the 3rd Circuit noted, even though the engineer had gone long periods without experiencing Brugada-related loss of awareness and the likelihood he would at any given moment was small.
In determining whether an employee in a safety-sensitive position can perform the job's essential functions, employers are often bound by federal or state regulations. Courts generally support employers when they find an employee can't perform essential functions based on these regulations.
For example, a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania didn't violate the ADA when it fired an armed security guard over his alcohol use and alleged "paranoid thoughts." When the guard's friend and co-worker notified the employer of these issues, the plant sent him for a fitness-for-duty evaluation.
A psychologist recommended that he be removed from duty and the plant immediately fired him. The 3rd Circuit said the guard had no ADA claim because he couldn't perform one of the job's essential functions: complying with Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety regulations that require nuclear power plant employees to be unimpaired.
Nor do employers have to remove essential functions to accommodate employees. In one example, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a case from the 2nd Circuit involving a Rite Aid pharmacist whose trypanophobia, or fear of needles, prevented him from administering immunizations.
In the locomotive engineer's case, the district court found that the railway company made a good faith effort to accommodate him by attempting to place him in another job for which he was qualified.