A tired driver takes a few snooze breaks. Should his company be allowed to fire him? It seems to make sense and, indeed, is the law, that if one of your drivers is too tired to drive that he or she should take a break. However, one driver recently took his company to court over this issue. Who won? More important, what could the company have done to avoid such a case?
Roderick Carter (the driver) filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) alleging that his employer, CPC Logistics, Inc. et al. (CPC) violated the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) by firing him from his job as a truck driver for taking breaks when he became too tired to safely drive.
Note: Under federal law and regulation at 49 CFR 392.3, drivers are prohibited from driving when ill or tired, and companies are not allowed to require or allow a driver to operate a commercial vehicle if the driver’s ability to drive is impaired by such conditions as illness or fatigue. This is known as the “driver fatigue rule.”
The OSHA administrative review board dismissed Carter’s complaint, so he requested a hearing with a Department of Labor’s administrative law judge (ALJ). The ALJ found that Carter took a protected break but did not agree that his delays during his trucking route were caused by fatigue breaks and didn’t believe him that he reported this to two of his CPC supervisors. The ALJ also concluded that the one instance of the protected break was not a contributing factor to his firing and dismissed his complaint.
Carter appealed to the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
On appeal, Carter claimed that the ALJ improperly discredited his testimony that he took additional protected breaks by refusing to drive when fatigued. He also claimed that he reported the need to take fatigue breaks to two supervisors when they questioned him about the excessive time that it took him to complete his route.
Who won the case?
Appeals Court Ruling
The appeals court agreed with Carter that the ALJ overlooked important evidence, granted Carter’s petition for review, and remanded the case to ALJ for further consideration.
According to the court, the STAA prohibits an employer from firing an employee for refusing to operate a vehicle because “the operation violates a regulation, standard, or order of the United States related to commercial motor vehicle safety, health, or security.” The employee must show that he engaged in protected activity, that his employer took adverse employment action against him, and that there is a causal relationship between his protected activity and the adverse employment action.
The causal relationship factor is satisfied if the employee shows that the protected activity was a contributing factor to the adverse employment action.
The court noted that it previously recognized that the “driver fatigue rule” falls within the protection of the STAA.
Did He Tell His Supervisors?
Carter challenged OSHA’s adoption of the ALJ’s factual findings—based on a credibility determination—that Carter never told his CPC supervisors that his delays were caused by fatigue breaks and that Carter’s delays were not actually caused by such breaks.
The court went out of its way to point out that it would only upend an ALJ’s credibility determination under exceptional circumstances—for example, when that “credibility determination is unreasonable, contradicts other findings of fact, or is based on an inadequate reason or no reason at all.”
The ALJ had discredited Carter’s testimony that he told two of his supervisors that his delays were caused by rest breaks. Carter had testified that he made general statements regarding fatigue breaks to only three men, including the two supervisors. Although the ALJ acknowledged that Carter made general statements that he was entitled to rest breaks during his employment with CPC, the ALJ did not make a finding as to whom these statements were made.
The ALJ had determined that Carter never mentioned fatigue breaks to his supervisors. However, CPC’s position statement to OSHA had acknowledged that Carter mentioned fatigue breaks to two supervisors when questioned about his performance. In fact, CPC and Carter agreed that Carter mentioned fatigue breaks during a telephone conversation with a supervisor about 1 month before he was fired. For some unknown reason, the ALJ found that fatigue breaks were never mentioned during that conversation.
According to the court, the evidence overlooked by the ALJ and OSHA’s administrative review board is significant given CPC’s admission that Carter’s delays were a factor in his termination, and thus, it is impossible to determine that ALJ’s error did not adversely affect the outcome of the case.
The court went on to say that ALJ’s credibility analysis on this issue also cited Carter’s failure to call dispatch when he took a rest break “as he was required to do,” but the ALJ neglected to cite any evidence indicating that a driver was required to notify dispatch each time he or she took a break.
Takeaway: What’s Your Policy?
Carter had initially lodged complaints with his superiors about CPC’s purported policy of not allowing drivers fatigue breaks. Although this complaint was eventually dropped, and there is no other indication that CPC had such a policy, it is important that Carter, and possibly other employees, felt that taking fatigue breaks was frowned upon at the company. Make sure you have a policy that discourages drowsy driving, and offer training that helps your drivers stay alert on the road. This will not only help your bottom line and safety record but also will help you stay in compliance and avoid a court case like the one that entangled CPC.
Tune in to tomorrow’s Advisor for tips for your drivers to avoid fatigue while driving.