A truck driver whose Iraq War-related post-traumatic stress disorder renders him unable to operate 18-wheelers on public roads has a non-job-related disability under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, which his employer failed to accommodate, the Commonwealth Court has ruled.
In an unpublished Feb. 2 opinion, a three-judge panel of the court affirmed a final order of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, directing petitioner Lazer Spot to cease and desist denying reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities and terminating them because of their disabilities; to pay former employee Matthew Harrison more than $104,000 plus 6 percent interest per year from Feb. 7, 2013, until payment is made; to reimburse Harrison nearly $11,000 for court costs; and to offer to reinstate Harrison to his former job as a yard jockey.
The appellate panel, led by Judge Anne E. Covey and including Judge Robert Simpson and Senior Judge Dan Pellegrini, said both the Americans With Disabilities Act and the PHRA define ”‘disability’” as “’a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.’”
Harrison, who once drove trucks for a civilian contractor in a combat zone in Iraq, now has PTSD that is triggered by driving 18-wheeled tractor trailers on open roads, according to Covey’s opinion. In 2011, he went to work for Lazer Spot, a Georgia-based yard management company with a location in Carlisle, as a yard jockey, using a truck to move trailers from one area to another within a fenced lot. Harrison worked first at Lazer Spot customer Reckitt Benckiser’s lot before being transferred, upon request, to the lot of another customer, Americold.
In the fall of 2012, Harrison and a group of Lazer Spot managers met to discuss Harrison’s potential to cross-train at other positions, such as shuttling goods from one warehouse site to another. At that meeting, according to Covey’s opinion, Harrison revealed that he would not be able to drive an 18-wheeler on public roads because of his PTSD. One of his managers said that wouldn’t be a problem because Harrison could cross-train in a way that didn’t require him to operate 18-wheelers on the open road.
But at a follow-up meeting in February 2013, Harrison was told by another manager that if he refused to drive an 18-wheeler on public roads, he would be fired. In a subsequent phone call, he was told the same thing by Lazer Spot’s general counsel, according to Covey’s opinion. He was terminated shortly thereafter, following a discussion between the GC, a Lazer Spot manager and the company’s vice president, in which the GC expressed safety concerns about Harrison operating any vehicle.
In July 2013, Harrison filed a complaint with the PHRC, which found in his favor. Lazer Spot appealed the decision to the Commonwealth Court.
The appellate panel accepted the PHRC hearing officer’s finding that Harrison is “‘substantially impaired in the major life activity of working.’”
According to Covey’s opinion, the hearing officer concluded that “‘the fundamental idea that Harrison’s PTSD could result in harm to either himself or others on the road clearly disqualifies Harrison from a broad spectrum of trucking industry jobs. Harrison’s real work opportunities are substantially limited and his occupational base is largely reduced because of his PTSD symptoms.’”
Covey rejected Lazer Spot’s argument that Harrison’s PTSD did not qualify as a non-job-related handicap or disability because it only prevented him from performing one specific job.
“Lazer Spot’s concern, and final reason for Harrison’s employment termination, that Harrison’s PTSD makes him unsafe to drive any vehicle, conflicts with its argument that his ability to work is not substantially limited because his PTSD only affects his driving of 18-wheelers,” Covey said.
Covey then turned to the question of whether Lazer Spot discriminated against Harrison by failing to accommodate his disability.
“Here, Lazer Spot argues Harrison does not need an accommodation because Harrison’s PTSD does not preclude him from working as a truck driver generally and driving an 18-wheeler specifically,” Covey said. “However, when faced with the option of giving Harrison a reasonable accommodation, i.e., permitting him to cross-train at a site with a gated yard and no public roads, which Lazer Spot had provided the first time it was made aware of Harrison’s PTSD, suddenly Lazer Spot determined upon Harrison’s refusal to drive an 18-wheeler on a public road, that Harrison was not safe to drive any vehicle. This conclusion was made notwithstanding that: Lazer Spot was aware Harrison had PTSD; Harrison had requested and received a reasonable accommodation therefor; after reviewing Harrison’s safety records, it was determined ‘he was a safe driver when driving[,];’ and there was no reason Harrison could not continue to work specifically at Americold.”
Covey also rejected Lazer Spot’s argument that driving 18-wheelers on the open road and performing shuttle work assignments were essential functions of a yard jockey’s position, noting that ”none of Lazer Spot’s witnesses testified as to any consequences Lazer Spot would face if Harrison did not cross-train on 18-wheeled tractor-trailers over public roads or perform shuttle work.”
Covey did side with Lazer Spot on one issue, however, finding that Harrison failed to mitigate his damages following his termination for the period in which he was enrolled at the York Technical Institute learning the electrician trade and not actively seeking employment.
“Considering Harrison admitted that he was not looking for work while he was enrolled in school and that he chose the electrician trade for personal reasons, without knowing or exploring the employment opportunities or lack thereof that would follow, this court holds that Harrison’s ‘furtherance of his education [wa]s inconsistent with his responsibility “to use reasonable diligence in finding other suitable employment,”‘” Covey said, quoting the 1982 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case Ford Motor v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Counsel for Lazer Spot, Michael Crocenzi of Burns White in Harrisburg and counsel for Harrison, Solomon Krevsky of Clark & Krevsky in Lemoyne, could not be reached for comment.
A spokeswoman for the PHRC declined to comment on the ruling.