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Alcoholism May Be Covered under FMLA and the ADA

While many do not see substance abuse as a disability or a serious medical condition, employers should be aware that substance addictions may be covered under the FMLA or the ADA if an employee receives inpatient care or continuing treatment for the problem, or if their addiction substantially affects a major life activity.  A recent Federal court case found an employer took all the right steps to insure it did not violate an employee’s rights under the ADA or FMLA, and serves as a good example for other employers in similar situations.

Diane Ames worked at Home Depot for five years without any problems.  One day, she told her supervisor she suffered from alcoholism and asked if he could help her enroll in the Employee Assistance Program.  Ames received paid time off so she could complete a rehabilitation program.  She was allowed to return to work after passing a drug and alcohol test.  She asked for, and was granted, scheduling accommodations so she could attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.  Ames also provided her manager with a note from her doctor, saying she was under his care and was seeing a psychiatrist for medication management. 

One day while at work, her supervisor noticed Ames acting strangely and smelled alcohol on her breath.  She was asked to take a blood alcohol test, which came back positive for alcohol.  Home Depot decided they would terminate Ames for violating their substance abuse policy.  Her supervisor scheduled a meeting with her on January 2.  On January 1, Ames checked herself into the hospital because she had grown so anxious about the meeting that she began drinking heavily again.  On January 2, Ames did not show up for the meeting with her supervisor, and her termination letter was mailed to her house.

Ames filed a lawsuit in Federal court claiming Home Depot violated the Family Medical Leave Act, and the Americans with Disability Act.  In order for the FMLA to apply, an employee must show that at the time of the disciplinary incident, he/she  suffered from a “serious health condition” which is an “illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves (A) inpatient care at a hospital, hospice or residential medical care facility; or (B) continuing treatment by a healthcare provider.”  Here, Ames failed to show she was receiving continuing treatment by a healthcare provider, or was receiving care at a medical facility until after failing the alcohol test at work.  Also, the note from her doctor did not say she was receiving continuing treatment for any medical condition.

Under the ADA, alcoholism can be a disability but only if a person can prove a disability that impacted any “major life activities.”  These activities may include sleeping, walking, or eating.  Ames testified that her condition did not affect her performance at work or her activities at home.  Therefore, the District Court found Ames failed to show Home Depot violated the ADA or the FMLA.  The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s decision. 

Employers should be mindful that alcoholism and other substance abuse problems may be considered disabilities under the ADA or a serious health condition under the FMLA requiring the employer to follow the guidelines of each statute.  Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on the FMLA, as well as employment law issues in general.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.965.0560.