New York Law

Mandatory Ignition Interlock Law Impacts New York Employers

November 22, 2010

By Thomas G. Eron

Effective August 15, 2010, a person convicted of driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New York is required as a condition of his or her probation or conditional discharge to install and maintain an ignition interlock device on any vehicle he or she owns or operates. The ignition interlock is a breathalyzer designed to prevent the vehicle from starting if the driver registers an alcohol content level. The new statute (Vehicle & Traffic Law § 1198), which is a provision of Leandra’s Law, also specifically addresses the individual’s operation of an employer’s vehicle.

Employer Rights and Obligations Under Leandra’s Law

Under the statute, an employer is not required to allow the individual to drive its vehicles, or to install ignition interlock devices in its vehicles. Rather, the statute is intended to ensure the employer has notice of the restriction on the employee’s license, and to then provide the employer with the option to allow the employee to drive its vehicles without an ignition interlock. The employee has the burden to notify the employer and to request written permission from the employer to operate its vehicles. Such permission is limited to the operation of the vehicle in the course and scope of employment for business purposes, and only applies to an employer that is not owned or controlled, in whole or in part, by the employee. If the employer grants permission for the employee to drive its vehicles, the employee must notify the court and probation officer that the employer has granted permission, and the employee must carry the written permission while operating the employer’s vehicle.

The statute also prohibits a person from knowingly leasing a vehicle to any individual who is subject to Leandra’s Law, which raises additional practical issues for employers whose employees regularly travel on business. What is not clear is whether employers will violate this leasing prohibition by granting permission to employees to operate vehicles the employer leases directly from a third party, or whether a court would conclude that the employer is free to grant permission because the leased vehicle is the equivalent of an employer-owned vehicle.

No provision of the statute compels the employer’s consent, and in many circumstances it may be reasonable and prudent to deny the employee permission to drive the employer’s vehicles (whether owned or leased). An employer that receives a request for permission should be mindful of the potential vicarious liability it would face under Vehicle & Traffic Law Section 388, if the employee injures a third party while driving in an intoxicated condition. There is also a potential for punitive damages arising from the employer’s knowing consent to the operation of its vehicle by an individual with a restricted license.

Discrimination Based on Criminal Conviction

Other than denying permission, any employment action based on the employee’s disclosure of a DWI conviction must be carefully considered. The New York Human Rights Law and Correction Law prohibit discrimination against an employee based on a criminal conviction unless: (i) there is a direct relationship between the individual’s criminal offenses and the specific employment sought or held: or (ii) the employment would create an unreasonable risk to property or to the safety or welfare of specific individuals or the general public. The statutes require an individualized, multi-factor evaluation by the employer before making an adverse employment decision based on an employee’s criminal conviction record.

Reasonable Accommodation Obligation

Alcoholism can be a covered disability, but the mere fact that an individual has been convicted of DWI and is subject to an ignition interlock restriction will not establish his or her disabled status under either state or federal law. However, to the extent the employee: (i) asserts that he or she suffers from a disabling condition, such as alcoholism; (ii) contends that he or she is able to perform the essential functions of the position; and (iii) identifies the ignition interlock as a potential reasonable accommodation; the employer will need to evaluate its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New York Human Rights Law.