The United States Supreme Court and the regulations implementing title I of the ADA allow for a complete defense to discrimination against persons with disabilities when the discrimination is necessary in order to comply with other federal law or regulations. Albertsons v. Kirkingburg 527 U.S. 555, 570, 570 n.16; see also id. at 578 (J. Thomas concurring). For example, laws and regulations pertaining to airline pilots and to drivers of commercial vehicles frequently talk about certain physical conditions that a person cannot have in order to be an airline pilot or to be a driver of a commercial vehicle. What happens when a State adopts one of those regulations on its own? Will that regulation then give the State an absolute defense against an ADA lawsuit? That was precisely the issue in the case of Zei v. Maryland Transit Administration _ A.3d_, 2013 WL 2149975 (Md. May 20, 2013). In this case, the State of Maryland adopted and applied federally created safety regulations governing the physical qualifications of drivers of commercial motor vehicles so that a bus driver with one of those conditions, happened to be cardiovascular in this situation, was no longer eligible to drive a bus. Also relevant to this discussion, is that States do not have to comply with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, though if a State wishes to receive federal grant money under the motor carrier safety assistance program, the State must comply with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations by adopting compatible State regulations.

Under these circumstances, the highest court of the State of Maryland held that the plaintiff was disqualified as a matter of law from being a commercial bus driver, and that an individual analysis of whether the physical requirement was job-related and consistent with business necessity was not necessary. They came to that conclusion in the following way. First, they explored the legislative history of the ADA and the cardiovascular disease standard, which was the condition at issue in this case, in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. In particular, the court noted that the cardiovascular disease language was originally put in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations in 1970 as part of creating guidelines for, “high risk medical categories.”

Second, the court noted that when the ADA was enacted, Congress was definitely aware of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, but yet did not abolish those regulations. Rather, Congress viewed those regulations as qualification standards satisfying the job-related and business necessity requirements of the ADA. In particular, the legislative history said that the committee expected within two years of the date the ADA was enacted, that the Sec. of Transportation would undertake a thorough review of the regulations to make sure that the standards in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations conformed with current knowledge about capability of persons with disabilities and that any necessary changes would be made to bring the regulations into compliance with the law. The Federal Highway administration did precisely that and then conducted an entire review of all the regulations for the purpose of reconsidering the underlying basis of all the safety rules and identifying a performance oriented regulatory structure that enhanced safety while minimizing the burden placed on the industry. Even after doing all that, the Federal Highway administration elected to retain the cardiovascular disease standard as being job-related and consistent with business necessity.

Third, the court pointed out that while subsequent to the Motor Carrier Safety Act of 1984, the Federal Highway administration decided to exempt motor vehicles operated by federal and State governments from the requirements of the regulations, the regulations implementing the Motor Carrier Safety Act did say that it was their intent to have governmental entities comply with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations to the greatest extent possible. As mentioned above, Congress took it a step further by creating a grant program that ties monies awarded to a State adopting compatible State regulation to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. Thus, the court found there was a clear federal policy to have State governments adopt and implement the qualification standards of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations even if State governments were technically exempt.

Finally, the court said that it would not be a reasonable accommodation to demand a waiver of requirements that the federal government views as essential to the safety of the highways and crucial to reducing the number of accidents involving commercial vehicles. Also, to hold otherwise, would unreasonably force the Maryland Transit Authority to lower its standards regarding minimal qualifications for commercial motor vehicle drivers.

What does this all mean? First, if you have a federal statute or a federal regulation that specifically calls for discrimination against persons with disabilities due to safety concerns, such as airline pilots or commercial bus drivers, those statutes and/or regulations may be a complete defense to a disability discrimination claim. In dealing with this kind of situation, the argument is going to be over whether there truly is a conflict between the ADA and the other safety statutes or regulations. If the conflict exists and the conflict is mandatory, the ADA will give way. Second, if a State adopts on its own a requirement from the federal government that calls for discrimination based upon disabilities (invariably that is going to be safety-based statute or regulations), it is possible the ADA will give way there too. Especially so, if there are incentives from the federal government to encourage the State to adopt those kind of standards. Finally, the discussion about a waiver is very interesting. For example, one court has held that the ADA may require that zoning ordinances be waived under certain circumstances (Kulin v. Deschutes County, 872 F. Supp. 2d 1093 (D. Or. 2012). One wonders if the discussion of waiver in this case could not be used by governmental entities to argue against a court following the decision that zoning waivers may be called for by the ADA.