When Alcohol Is Involved, the ADA Distinguishes Between ‘Having a Disability’ and ‘Disability-related Misconduct’

Alcoholism is an ADA-protected disability.

Yet the ADA does not require that employers accommodate alcoholics by permitting them to drink, or otherwise be intoxicated, on the job.

Case in point? Dennis v. Fitzsimmons (D. Col. 9/5/19).

Jared Dennis was employed as a deputy in the Summit County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Office. He’s also an alcoholic. While on administrative suspension following his wife’s allegation of domestic violence, Dennis got drunk at home the night before his criminal arraignment. The following morning, he failed his intake breathalyzer. Thereafter, the Sheriff’s Office terminated him for, among other rules violations, conduct unbecoming of an officer and being impaired while on duty.

Dennis sued his former employer for disability discrimination, claiming that it fired him because of a protected disability — his alcoholism.
The court disagreed, and dismissed Dennis’s lawsuit.

It is generally recognized that alcoholism can constitute a disability entitling the employee to protection under the ADA…. The more difficult question is whether Deputy Dennis has come forward with evidence that his termination resulted from his disability, rather than his conduct.…[W]hen the disability at issue is alcoholism, the ADA … draw[s] a distinction between “having a disability” and “disability-caused misconduct.”

It is undisputed that the SCSO based its decision to terminate Deputy Dennis’ on the fact that he reported for his arraignment in an intoxicated state. Thus, there is no dispute that SCSO’s decision arose from his unsatisfactory conduct on the morning of July 28, not from his abstract status as an alcoholic. As noted, the ADA … do[es] not extend protection to actions of alcohol-influenced misconduct, even if the employee’s alcohol use is related to the disability of alcoholism. Accordingly, Deputy Dennis has not come forward with evidence that indicates that his termination was based on his status as a disabled person (as opposed to his conduct).

Addiction is a protected disability. But it does not mean you have to permit its use to accommodate the disability. Under the influence at work does not equal a disability, ever.

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