Airline Pilot Grounded for Diabetes Can Pursue Discrimination Claims

By Jeffrey Rhodes July 3, 2018
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Airline Pilot Grounded for Diabetes Can Pursue Discrimination Claims

​An airline pilot diagnosed with diabetes and barred by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules from flying for 60 days advanced discrimination claims when he was fired for not returning shortly thereafter, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled.

The plaintiff worked for GoJet Airlines, a commercial airline that operates flights on behalf of United Airlines and Delta Airlines. On May 31, 2014, the plaintiff visited his primary care physician because he was thirsty and losing weight. On June 2, 2014, his doctor diagnosed him with diabetes mellitus. She instructed the plaintiff to start taking metformin that same day and told him that he should not fly.

The pilot contacted GoJet's medical examiner after receiving his diagnosis. The medical examiner e-mailed to the plaintiff the FAA protocol for pilots who have been newly prescribed metformin for diabetes. Under this protocol, the plaintiff was required to undergo testing by an aviation medical examiner after taking metformin for 60 days. He was prohibited from flying until the FAA evaluated his test results and approved the special issuance of a first-class medical certificate.

The plaintiff was scheduled to fly starting on June 11. On June 10, he notified the crew scheduling department that he could not fly because he had begun taking metformin and would need to undergo testing before the FAA issued him a new medical certificate. At GoJet's request, the plaintiff obtained a certification from his doctor to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) from May 31 to July 31, 2014.

On June 17, GoJet's Chicago base manager e-mailed the plaintiff and told him that GoJet had concerns about his fitness to fly. Thus, under the collective bargaining agreement, GoJet would require him to undergo a medical examination at the GoJet doctor's office before his return from leave.

In a reply e-mail, the plaintiff questioned the requirement that he be examined by the company doctor. The plaintiff argued that the collective bargaining agreement requires such an exam only if GoJet believes that a pilot's medical condition is impaired and that he may not be fit to fly as a result. The plaintiff claimed that the airline could not believe him to be impaired when his return to work was two months away.

The manager replied and asked the plaintiff if he would submit to an exam from the company doctor before returning to work. The plaintiff replied to the e-mail on June 25 without stating whether he would see the company doctor but stating he intended to comply with FAA requirements. The day after receiving this e-mail, GoJet's director of operations e-mailed the base manager and told her that the company intended to fire the plaintiff after his FMLA leave ended.

The plaintiff later e-mailed stating that it was too early to see GoJet's doctor, and that he could not return to work on Aug. 1 because he needed to be on metformin for at least 60 days and then see an aviation medical examiner. The plaintiff stated that only after that process was complete would it be time to consider a medical examination under the collective bargaining agreement.

After July 31, the manager e-mailed the plaintiff and told him that he would need to recertify his FMLA leave by Aug. 15. The plaintiff did not see the e-mail until Aug. 19 and did not submit his completed FMLA recertification until Aug. 25. GoJet had already sent out a resignation notification on Aug. 17 due to the plaintiff's failure to return from leave.

The plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and eventually filed a federal court lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and FMLA. GoJet filed a motion for summary judgment to have the case dismissed before trial.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Employees' Disabilities]

The court found that the ADA claim for failure to accommodate should survive the motion because GoJet had not explored possible accommodations for the plaintiff's diabetes. The plaintiff also stated a disparate impact claim that could advance to trial because GoJet had decided to terminate the plaintiff's employment in June 2014, long before the plaintiff purportedly missed the deadline for FMLA certification. The court also found that most of the plaintiff's FMLA interference and retaliation claims should survive summary judgment because the plaintiff had expressed in June that his leave would probably continue beyond July 31, but he was terminated on Aug. 17. The court dismissed part of the plaintiff's claims because of his late recertification paperwork.

Cloutier v. GoJet Airlines LLC, N.D. Ill., No. 16 C 1146 (May 15, 2018).

Professional Pointer: Employers must seek to reasonably accommodate an employee who reveals a disability and administer the FMLA requirements with the intent to return the employee to work after his or her leave.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.

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