henson-andrewBy Andrew J. Henson

A recent Eighth Circuit opinion found that a trucking company could force heavy-set truck drivers to submit to a sleep apnea exam as a “business necessity,” avoiding liability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), possibly paving the way for future class-wide medical examination requirements that comply with the ADA.

In Parker v. Crete Carrier Corp., 2016 WL 5929210 (8th Cir. October 12, 2016), a trucking company required its drivers who had a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 35 or greater to get medical examinations to determine if they had Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). Parker, a driver for the company, objected to the sleep apnea investigation requirement and gave his employer a note from his doctor, which stated that he did not believe the examination was necessary. When the trucking company refused to allow Parker to conduct any further driving without the examination, Parker sued under the ADA, alleging he was discriminated against for being “regarded as” having a disability. The court assumed without deciding that requiring a medical examination for people with a BMI in excess of 35 was sufficient to show an employer regarded an employee as having a disability and proceeded to whether the employer had an affirmative defense.

Under the ADA, medical examination requirements are generally proscribed unless they are “shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)(4)(A). In Parker, the Eighth Circuit found that the sleep study requirement was job-related because it dealt with a condition that impairs drivers’ abilities to operate their vehicles. Moreover, the court determined that engaging in the business of truck driving while having untreated OSA posed a public safety hazard. Accordingly, the court found that the requirement that an entire class of drivers be subjected to mandatory sleep studies was consistent with the business necessity defense.

Parker argued that even if the company could require some of the class to undergo sleep studies, it was still a violation of the ADA to include him within the class. Parker reasoned that (1) he had no documented sleep issues; (2) he had already received a Department of Transportation (DOT) certification; (3) he received an award for five years of accident-free driving and was recognized as a top trainer; and (4) he produced a note from his doctor, which stated his medical opinion that a sleep exam was not necessary. The Eight Circuit rejected this argument, finding that the company had defined the class reasonably by requiring the exam for all drivers with a BMI higher than 35, and, therefore, it did not violate the ADA by forcing Parker as an individual to take the medical examination.

The Fourth Circuit has addressed mandatory health exams for individuals where some evidence is found that would make such a health exam necessary, Coursey v. Univ. of Maryland Eastern Shore, 577 Fed.Appx. 167, 173 (4th Cir. 2014), where an employee returned to work following an injury, Porter v. U.S. Alumoweld Co., Inc., 125 F.3d 243 (4th Cir. 1997), or where a health exam is required pursuant to the reasonable accommodation process, Pettis v. House of Ruth Maryland, Inc., 2006 WL 6507699 (4th Cir. 2005), but it has not yet addressed the issue of class-wide mandatory exams. A case like Parker may inform the Fourth Circuit in a future decision involving the legality of a medical examination requirement imposed on a class of employees.