Discrimination Claims Defeated
On July 24, 2009, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Office of Federal Operations issued a decision in Alford v. Department of the Navy, EEOC Appeal No. 0120080747, holding that Alford’s claims of disability discrimination could not prevail over various legal requirements mandating seat belt use.
Alford was a WG-07 bus driver at Naval Base Kitsap, Bremerton, Wash., who frequently worked overtime in his position. Alford also suffered from a chronic medical condition in his shoulder and neck which made him unable to drive while using a shoulder safety belt. In December 2004, the Naval Base Commander ordered all motor vehicle operators on base to use safety belts. Management then promoted Alford into a WG-11 automotive equipment repair inspector. Alford was no longer permitted to work overtime as a bus driver in his WG-11 position. Alford submitted a medical statement regarding his shoulder/neck condition which requested that he be excused from the shoulder belt requirement for “medical reasons”. Alford filed an EEO complaint in February 2005, asserting (among other claims) disability discrimination for the agency’s refusal to let him work overtime as a bus driver. Alford ultimately requested a hearing, where the administrative judge issued a decision without a hearing in favor of the agency on the agency’s motion for summary judgment. Alford then appealed to the Office of Federal Operations.
On appeal, the Commission affirmed the grant of decision without a hearing. The agency identified as its alleged nondiscriminatory reasons for barring Alford from bus driver overtime an Executive Order (E.O. 13043 (April 16, 1997)), a Department of Defense regulation (49 C.F.R. §392.16) and a Department of Defense policy (DoD Instruction No. 6055.4 (July 20, 1999)) as all requiring federal employees to use safety belts while in government-owned vehicles and/or while in a vehicle during duty hours. The Commission found these federal requirements to trump any permission for drivers to not use safety belts in the Washington state motor vehicles law.
Alford had cited the agency’s practice of permitting other WG-11 automotive equipment repair inspectors to work overtime as bus drivers. The Commission, however, found no disparate treatment due to a lack of evidence that these other employees were permitted to not use safety belts while driving government-owned vehicles. The Commission further found that, to the extent that Alford was claiming reasonable accommodation, the agency’s cited federal safety belt regulations and policies made wearing a safety belt an essential function of an agency motor vehicle operator. The Commission held that Alford’s inability to wear the safety belt rendered him unqualified to drive agency vehicles; accordingly, the Commission found Alford to not be a “qualified individual with a disability,” and thus not entitled to reasonable accommodation.