Yes, alcoholism can be a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The EEOC notes here that the ADA may protect a “qualified” alcoholic who can meet the definition of “disability.” What is a “qualified” alcoholic? Someone who can perform the job’s essential functions with or without accommodation.
An employer can discipline an employee who violates a workplace policy that prohibits the use of alcohol. But it can also accommodate an alcoholic with a flexible work schedule to allow them to attend AA to remain clean and sober.
But how about this scenario?
The police cite one of your employees, an alcoholic, for driving while intoxicated (DWI). It’s their third violation, which results in probation, a term of which is to attend weekly substance abuse classes. Some of these classes conflicted with scheduled shifts. The employee then informs their supervisor that he is an alcoholic and that several of the court-ordered substance abuse classes will conflict with his scheduled shifts.
Is there a duty to accommodate?
This one is fact-driven. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a brief on behalf of the plaintiff to argue that the employer must consider leave as a reasonable accommodation for an alcoholic employee seeking substance abuse treatment, which is consistent with what I wrote above.
But, in this situation, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the employer had no duty to accommodate. Instead, the employer “reasonably viewed his request as one for time off to deal with the legal consequences of his most recent DWI.”
Indeed, the court noted that the plaintiff’s conversations about the DWI with his supervisor were to discuss the arrest and the associated court case. Undoubtedly, the DWI conversations included a discussion of a court-ordered substance abuse program. However, the plaintiff also mentioned breathalyzer requirements that could interfere with his job. So, context matters, and the court reasoned that the plaintiff “referred to his struggles with drinking only when discussing how criminal sanctions traceable to his drinking would impact his work. Indeed, [the plaintiff] himself confirmed that he had always met his work obligations, despite his alcoholism.”
On these facts, the court did not expect the defendant to view the plaintiff’s statements as him claiming to have a disability that required accommodation. This was true even though he specifically told his supervisors that he was attempting to find employees who could cover for him so he could attend the treatment classes.
I haven’t reviewed the entire factual record in this case. But I have this feeling that some disputed material facts may create a close enough call to send this to a jury.
For more on accommodating individuals with alcoholism, check out these resources:
- Substance Abuse under the ADA by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
- Applying Performance and Conduct Standards to Employees with Disabilities from the EEOC
- About Alcoholism from the Job Accommodation Network