Court Allows Plaintiff to Proceed with Case in Federal Court Despite Failure to Exhaust with an Administrative Agency

When a commercial vehicle driver was fired after having a mini stroke, a federal court determined that administrative requirements applied to his claim that he had not satisfied, but still allowed him to proceed.  The plaintiff worked for a freight distribution company as a commercial driver, and suffered a mini stroke at work.  After he obtained treatment, the plaintiff’s doctors cleared him to return to work, but the Company required the plaintiff to be examined again by its own approved physician.  This doctor also cleared the plaintiff for work.  Then, the Company insisted that he be examined by a second Company-approved physician, who concluded that he was not fit to work, resulting in his discharge by the Company.  The driver claimed that his discharge violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The case is Hill v. Houff Transfer, Inc., Civil Action No. 3:12cv357-JRS (E.D. Va. Oct. 19, 2012).

The driver filed charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and with the Virginia Council on Human Rights.  Once the EEOC issued him a Right to Sue letter, he filed a federal court lawsuit under the ADA.  Because he was a commercial driver, however, the Company argued that the driver failed to pursue administrative relief with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), barring him from federal court.  The DOT provides that when a conflict exists between a commercial vehicle driver’s physician and the company’s physician concerning the driver’s fitness to work, the driver may appeal to a DOT agency to resolve the conflict.  The Court determined that the DOT did provide the driver with an administrative remedy, but that the driver failed to pursue that remedy.

While the Court agreed with the Company that a litigant is not entitled to judicial relief until he has exhausted all of his available administrative remedies, it noted that it may grant exceptions to this rule where administrative review would be futile or inadequate.  Here, the driver argued that the DOT’s administrative remedies would be futile because the DOT does not have authority to provide the ADA remedies that the plaintiff seeks.  The Court agreed.  Specifically, the DOT could not order the Company to rehire the plaintiff and could not order the Company to compensate the plaintiff for its discriminatory acts in violation of the ADA.  Since the driver was seeking remedies available only through the ADA and not through the DOT review process, the DOT review would be futile and inadequate.  Thus, the Court excused the exhaustion requirement and allowed the plaintiff to proceed in federal court.

As this case shows, employees must comply with administrative requirements prior to filing suit, but courts often use discretion in permitting exceptions.  Had the Company’s first physician not cleared the plaintiff for work, calling into question the second physician’s diagnosis and the need for DOT involvement, the outcome of this case may have been different.