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Police Officer Fired for Crashing Cruiser While Drunk – Is He Protected by Disability Laws?

An Oregon police officer was arrested in January 2011 after crashing an unmarked police car into a ditch while off duty.  The officer refused to submit to a breathalyzer or field sobriety test, but later pled guilty to driving under the influence.  The arresting officer said the intoxicated officer was one of the ten most intoxicated people he had ever arrested.  He was fired from the police force and is now suing, claiming he is an alcoholic and his termination amounts to disability discrimination.

While alcoholism (but not current use of illegal drugs) can be a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the police offer should lose his lawsuit because the ADA allows employers to terminate or otherwise discipline employees who engage in misconduct if it would otherwise impose the same discipline for an employee without a disability.  A police force can terminate an alcoholic for drunk driving as long as it would also terminate an employee who was not an alcoholic who engaged in drunk driving.  To be lawful, it must be the illegal or destructive behavior, not the disability, that is grounds for discipline or termination.

While the ADA can sometimes impose onerous requirements on employers, employers should not be afraid to take action when necessary to protect company property or the safety of others and the public.  If an employee has violated work rules, the employer is generally able to impose discipline.  Unfortunately, as this case proves, an employer can act within the bounds of the law and still face an expensive lawsuit.  While employers cannot eliminate this risk, consulting with counsel before taking action in highly charged situations like this one can help minimize the risk of litigation and the possibility of a lawsuit for negligently retaining a dangerous employee if you don’t take action against the employee.

Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on the ADA, as well as other civil rights issues and employment laws in general.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.965.0560.