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What Health Standards Can Employers Impose on CDL Drivers Under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act?

by Natalie T. Lorenz, Attorney at Law

Federal Law Requires a Medical Examiner’s Certificate

Regulations promulgated under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act (“FMCSA”) state that a new CDL applicant who certifies that he/she will operate commercial motor vehicles in non-excepted interstate commerce must provide the State with a medical examiner’s certificate.  Each certificate can be valid for a maximum of two years, although medical examiners may also certify drivers for shorter time periods for various reasons.  In order to maintain a medical certification, the driver must provide the State with each subsequently issued medical examiner’s certificate.

FMCSA Medical Standards and Advisory Criteria: Different Standards

FMCSA regulations provide that a person is physically qualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle if that person meets the medical examination requirements, and does not have any of the problems listed in the regulations.  There are thirteen specific medical problems listed in the regulations, which disqualify a person from obtaining a CDL.  For example, the regulations require that an applicant “Has no established medical history or clinical diagnosis of epilepsy or any other condition which is likely to cause loss of consciousness or any loss of ability to control a commercial motor vehicle.”

In addition to the mandatory requirements set forth in the regulations, Appendix A of the regulations provides “advisory” recommendations to medical examiners, which the examiner is free to accept or reject.  The medical examiner may approve an applicant even if the applicant does not meet the advisory criteria.  For example, with regard to epilepsy, the advisory recommendations provide that certain drivers cannot be qualified: (i) a driver with a medical history of epilepsy; (ii) a driver with a current clinical diagnosis of epilepsy; or (iii) a driver taking antiseizure medication.

As you can see, the medical advisory criteria provides that a driver taking antiseizure medication cannot be qualified, while the regulations themselves do not mention that disqualification.  Under the regulations, a person who takes antiseizure medication but has not been diagnosed with a condition likely to cause inability to control a CMV could still be qualified.  For example, someone with a seizure disorder that is controlled by medication, and therefore, not likely to cause inability to control a CMV, could still qualify.  Not so under the medical advisory criteria.

Carrier-Employer’s Ability to Deviate from Regulations

Although the regulations provide that a CDL requires only a medical certificate and that none of the thirteen listed problems are present, it is noteworthy that carriers can set their own medical standards for their drivers (they can only be stricter than the federal standards, however).  As such, carrier-employers are free to adopt the stricter standards set forth in the medical advisory criteria, even though the FMCSA regulations themselves do not require compliance with the advisory criteria.

In a case known as Tate, one federal appellate court stated, “Provided that any necessary job specification is job-related, uniformly-enforced, and consistent with business necessity, the employer has the right to establish what a job is and what is required to perform it.”  In Tate, the plaintiff was given a medical examiner’s certificate even though he had been taking seizure medication and had experienced seizures in the past.  In other words, even though the applicant did not meet the advisory criteria, the medical examiner still issued a certificate because the regulations had technically been met.  However, although the applicant had obtained a certificate and met the requirement of not having any of the thirteen problems set forth in the regulations, the carrier-employer did not hire the applicant due to his medical history.  The carrier told the applicant that it had a policy of requiring operators to comply with the medical advisory criteria, which were stricter than the regulations themselves.  As such, even though the employee met the medical requirements of the regulations, he was denied a job for health reasons.  Ultimately, the court held that the employer had the right to refuse employment, even though the applicant had met the requirements set forth in the regulations themselves.

Restrictions on Carrier-Employers

Although the carrier-employer won in Tate, the court specifically noted that there was no indication that the plaintiff was treated differently from other persons in the defendant’s employ.  Thus, even though an employer can set stricter health standards than those promulgated in the FMCSA regulations, the employer cannot discriminate or single out specific individuals.  Any refusal to hire a person based on the applicant’s health should be carefully assessed to ensure that the individual was treated the same as others in similar circumstances.

The attorneys at Mathis, Marifian & Richter have experience representing individual drivers against employer-carriers, and look forward to helping you resolve any dispute that may arise regarding the same.

Natalie Lorenz is an associate at Mathis, Marifian & Richter who focuses her practice in commercial litigation, wrongful discharge, worker's compensation, employment law and medical malpractice.

Professional Services Disclaimer:

Please note that the information presented here is as an educational service, and while it contains information about legal issues, it is not legal advice.  No warranty is made regarding the applicability of the information presented to a particular client situation, and the information set forth is not a substitute for original legal research, analysis, and drafting for a particular client situation.

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