Alcoholism and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Let’s consider two workplace scenarios:

  1. Employee is an alcoholic and comes to work drunk. Employer fires employee. Legal?
  2. Employee is an alcoholic and seeks time off from work to enter a rehab program. Employer fires employee. Legal?

The answers under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Texas Labor Code (which includes similar anti-disability discrimination provisions) would likely be yes to the first but no to the second. I don’t think the answer to the first scenario is unsurprising on its face. However, once we explain why the termination in the second scenario is probably unlawful then we might have to come un-muddy the waters on why the first scenario is still probably lawful. If you believe you have a disability discrimination claim then you should talk to Texas employment lawyers right away.

Alcoholism and disability discrimination

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Texas Labor Code, alcoholism (and other drug addiction) is a disability. The ADA and Texas Labor Code define a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially impairs a major life activity. Alcoholism is considered a mental impairment. The addiction-fueled over-consumption of alcohol can result in impairment of major life activities like walking, standing and thinking.

The ADA and Texas Labor Code prohibit employers from taking adverse employment actions on the basis of a disability.

Because alcoholism is a qualified disability an employer cannot take disciplinary action against an employee for being an alcoholic. The employer may also have to provide a reasonable accommodation for the alcoholism.

(As a brief aside, some other laws do not consider alcoholism a qualified disability. For example, one generally cannot receive disability benefits from the Social Security Disability Insurance program for chronic alcoholism.)

Taking an adverse employment action against the employee on the basis of his or her disability or failing to make a reasonable accommodation is unlawful disability discrimination.

Reasonable accommodations for alcoholism

In our second scenario, our alcoholic employee has requested time off to attend a rehab program. This would be a request for a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s disability (and maybe also a request for leave under FMLA) and the employer would have to engage in the typical interactive process to determine whether the employer must offer that particular accommodation to the employee.

Without getting too deep into the reasonable accommodation analysis in this post, it is possible that the employer lawfully determines the particular time off request is not a reasonable accommodation. (For example, if the employee wants two months off of work for an in-patient program, it may be an undue burden for the employer to lose the employee for that period of time).

Reasonable accommodation to a disability

However, if a reasonable accommodation can be found and the employer still discharges the employee for making the request or for taking the time off after being initially approved then the employer has very likely unlawfully discriminated against the employee on the basis of his or her disability.

Ok, let’s get back to that first scenario. It sounds like the employee was discharged for being drunk at work and the over-consumption of alcohol is related to alcoholism, so why isn’t that employee protected? Under the ADA and Texas Labor Code, the disease of alcoholism is a disability; but drinking or being intoxicated is not.

Employers can establish rules that prohibit employees from drinking on the job or intoxicated at work.

You can see why this makes sense. Drunk employees are a risk to themselves, which in turn can be a financial risk to the employer. Even if the disease perpetuates the drinking, drinking is different from the disease. Generally it is no protection for the employee to pound some Steel Reserve at work and claim alcoholism.

Employment attorney for disability discrimination litigation

If you believe your employer fired you for a disability then you should contact an employment attorney right away. An employment attorney can help you understand your rights and if you have a claim. The Americans with Disabilities Act is an extremely technical law. An employment attorney can help navigate the technical provisions of the statute to pursue a claim. If you require an accommodation to a disability then you should talk to an employment attorney right away. The process to request a disability accommodation under the statute requires specific action. An employment attorney can help you navigate that process.

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