Drugs, Alcohol and the ADA

Aug 22 10

When is an employee with an alcohol or drug problem protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act?  The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed this issue. A police chief rear-ended a car on his way home after he had consumed at least four glasses of wine. His blood alcohol level was nearly three times the Illinois legal limit.

The chief was placed on administrative leave and then terminated based on a pattern of errors in judgment, his inability to perform his duties, since his driver’s license had been revoked, and for engaging in conduct below the standards expected in the job.  The chief sued and claimed that his employer had discriminated based on his alcoholism and by refusing to accommodate his alcoholism.

The Court of Appeals dismissed this case, finding that the police chief was not a qualified individual with a disability because he had failed to comply with universal workplace rules and he could not perform the essential functions of the job because he was unable to operate a motor vehicle because of the suspended driver’s license.

The court pointed out that employers can discipline employees for the violation of workplace rules, even if the violation is caused by a disability. The discipline can include termination.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission takes the position that the ADA protects an alcoholic if the individual can meet the definition of disability:

  • If the condition is so severe that it substantially limits one or more major life activities.
  • The ADA also protects a recovered drug addict if the person is no longer engaging in the illegal use of drugs.
  • The ADA does not protect employees who currently use illegal drugs.

However, the EEOC expects alcoholics and illegal drug users to meet the same performance and conduct standards as all other employees.

These conditions do not excuse poor job performance or other unsatisfactory behavior, including absenteeism, tardiness, insubordination or involvement in on-the-job accidents.  The ADA allows employers to prohibit the use of alcohol and illegal drugs in the workplace. Employers also are allowed to discipline employees who come to work under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

As always, employers must be consistent in their administration of discipline. For example, an employer should not terminate someone who is known to have an alcohol problem if the individual comes in late and then allow other employees to be tardy.

Finally, employers can refer employees to employee assistance programs, but they are not required to refer employees to employee assistance programs in lieu of discipline.