Protecting Alcoholics, Preventing Alcohol Misuse And Distinguishing Between The Two

It has long been clear that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) protects alcoholism if it qualifies as a "disability."1 That said, courts have consistently held that employers can have legitimate work rules that prohibit alcohol use in the workforce. However, the line between having a protected disability and engaging in unprotected misconduct while working can easily become blurred, and employers across all industries likely have struggled over this issue. The distinction is important because protected alcoholics may be entitled to reasonable accommodations under the ADA and state laws.

Two recent federal district court decisions address both issues. In Lankford v. Reladyne, LLC, an Ohio district court considered a plaintiff's claim that the employer unlawfully terminated the employee upon his return to work from a medical leave for alcohol rehabilitation. A few months later, the Northern District of Mississippi in Clark v. Boyd Tunica, Inc. dismissed a former employee's claim that her employer unlawfully terminated her for being at work while under the influence of alcohol. Both cases touch on the competing issues confronting most employers today—the obligation to accommodate disabled alcoholic workers and the right to enforce policies that prohibit alcohol use while at work.

Alcoholism in workplaces presents many legal and human resource management issues. Correctly navigating federal and state discrimination and leave laws is crucial not only for helping avoid litigation but also for ensuring a safe environment for all employees. These issues and the Lankford and Clark decisions are discussed below.

Employers May Have a Duty to Provide Alcoholics with Reasonable Accommodations, Including a Protected Leave of Absence

Does the ADA Protect the Employee's Alcoholism?

The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence defines alcoholism as: "a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychological, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortion in thinking, most notably denial." According to the Council, 17.6 million people, or one in every 12 adults, suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence.

Under the ADA, individuals who abuse alcohol may be considered disabled if the person is an alcoholic or a recovering alcoholic.2 Indeed, alcoholism can result in the fairly obvious impairment of major life activities such as walking, standing, and thinking. Case law is in agreement. For example, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has noted that "it is well-established that alcoholism meets the definition of a disability" under the ADA.3 In addition, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has held that where a plaintiff could show she was regarded as an alcoholic, she was "disabled within the meaning of the ADA."4

Some courts, however, have called into question whether alcoholism should categorically be a covered disability. Specifically:

The Fifth Circuit concluded that alcoholism is not a disability per se, finding that the plaintiff's alcoholism was not a covered disability under the ADA because it did not substantially limit any of his major life activities.5 The Eighth Circuit suggested it would analyze alcoholism on an individualized basis regarding whether it is a covered disability under the ADA, mentioning in a footnote that the plaintiff had not presented evidence "that his alcoholism impaired a major life activity."6 Similarly, the Tenth Circuit concluded that while alcoholism could qualify as a disability under the ADA, the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that his condition restricted a major life activity after he testified that he could function normally if he attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and that his alcoholism did not affect his ability to go to work and complete his job duties.7 When is There a Duty to Accommodate Employees with Alcoholism?

Under the ADA, an employer must engage in the interactive process when an employee asks for an accommodation or when the employer becomes aware of its necessity.8 The issue of when the employer becomes aware of the necessity for an accommodation raises an interesting question. Can (or should) an employer ask applicants about their drinking habits? According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): "[t]hat depends on whether the particular question is likely to elicit information about alcoholism, which is a disability. An employer may certainly ask an applicant whether s/he drinks alcohol because that does not reveal whether...

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