An alcoholic is a person with a disability and is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act if he is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job. But what if one of the essential functions of the job is not having a current diagnosis of alcoholism? That was the question posed recently by Jarvela v. Crete Carrier Corp., Case No. 13-11601 (11th Cir., January 28, 2015). The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the employee was not qualified for the job and could be lawfully terminated – yet the decision leaves a key question unanswered.

Sakari Jarvela was a commercial motor vehicle driver employed by Crete Carrier Corporation. Crete terminated Jarvela one week after a substance abuse treatment center had discharged Jarvela with a diagnosis of alcohol dependence and cleared him to return to work. Crete concluded that Jarvela was not qualified for the job because U.S. Department of Transportation regulations forbid motor carriers to allow someone who has a “current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism” to drive a CMV. Crete’s job description for CMV drivers incorporates this standard.

Jarvela sued Crete, claiming that Crete discriminated against him in violation of the ADA. The district court granted Crete’s motion for summary judgment.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, noting that under the ADA, employers subject to DOT qualification standards may require their employees to comply with those standards. Because one of those standards was that Jarvela have “no current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism,” the court reasoned that “Jarvela could not perform an essential function of Crete’s job description (and, indeed, Crete could not allow him to drive a commercial motor vehicle), unless he had ‘no current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism.’”

The court’s decision seems quite straightforward until you ask, what is a “current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism”? Jarvela presented testimony from two physicians, his mental health counselor, and a colleague that being an alcoholic is a permanent condition. That’s why, according to Jarvela’s colleague, recovering alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous introduce themselves as “alcoholic” for as long as they live. But the DOT’s regulations can’t mean that because alcoholism is permanent, a diagnosis of alcoholism will always be “current.” Following this logic, Jarvela argued that his diagnosis was not current when he was terminated because according to one of his doctors, “he was doing what was necessary to stay dry… and that means currently he’s not having a problem with alcoholism.”

The Eleventh Circuit rejected Jarvela’s argument, holding that “a seven-day-old diagnosis is ‘current’ … Jarvela did not ‘lose’ his clinical diagnosis between his discharge [from the treatment center] on April 20 and his termination by Crete one week later.”

But the court declined to say how long an employee must stay dry before a diagnosis of alcoholism is no longer “current” under DOT regulations. “We are not prepared to draw a bright line as to how much time must pass before a diagnosis of alcoholism is no longer ‘current,’” the court wrote. That question may be answered in future cases. Until then, motor carriers subject to DOT regulations are left with little guidance on the issue.