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Eleventh Circuit Approves Employer's Extended Leave Requirement Following Suicide Attempt

    Client Alerts
  • August 28, 2020

We occasionally receive questions from employers about employees who have threatened or even attempted suicide. While these issues first involve making sure that the employee is safe and receiving appropriate care, questions later arise regarding the employee’s ability to safely and effectively perform the job upon return to work. Last week in an unpublished decision, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Georgia) approved an employer’s one-year ban on driving for an employee who had attempted suicide.

In Vaughn v. FedEx Freight, Inc., the plaintiff shot himself in the head but survived and sought reinstatement to his driving job. FedEx disqualified the plaintiff from driving for 12 months following the attempt, relying on Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration guidelines for drivers with major depressive disorders. The employee countered that six months was enough time to demonstrate that he was qualified to drive, and he sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act following the employer’s refusal to shorten the leave period.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the complaint. The plaintiff claimed that he did not actually suffer from depression, and that the suicide attempt resulted from a brief psychotic episode from which he had been cleared to return by his doctor. He alleged that FedEx’s reasons for the disqualification were pretext, and that he had been discriminated against based on a perceived disability. The court disagreed, noting even if FedEx was mistaken in terms of the diagnosis, this was not evidence of pretext. In addition, the plaintiff had a history of diagnosed depression, and the employer’s reliance on the FMCSA guidelines was reasonable under the circumstances.

FedEx’s ability to cite federal recommendations helped bolster its defense to this claim. Even in the absence of such guidelines, employers are entitled under the ADA to conduct a reasonable medical analysis prior to reinstating employees who have experienced major psychiatric episodes.