Drunk Employees Not Protected by ADA

A recent federal court decision upheld the fact that an employer can terminate an employee for being drunk at work, even when the employee is an alcoholic covered by ADA.


Alcoholism and drug addiction are often disabilities under ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act. That law requires the employer to give workers time off for treatment. However, it does not require an employer to allow an employee be under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol at work. Nor does it permit an employee to drink alcohol or use drugs at work.


In a recent case before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Diane Ames worked for The Home Depot, a major home improvement retailer. After five years, Ames approached the employer and disclosed that she was an alcoholic. She requested aid from the Employee Assistance Program or EAP. Home Depot allowed Ames to take a month of paid leave for rehab.


Ames returned to work after signing an EAP agreement stating that she would not drink alcohol or be under the influence of alcohol at work. The agreement specified that the consequence for either behavior was immediate termination. It also required Ames to submit to a blood test if the employer suspected she was under the influence at work.


Ames had several conversations with her supervisor, who rearranged her work schedule to accommodate Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.


A few days later, Ames was arrested on her way to work and charged with DUI, driving under the influence of alcohol. Because Ames was not currently on FMLA, the company disciplined her for the absence. The company also required that Ames undergo an EAP evaluation, since the DUI arrest violated the EAP agreement she had signed.


Ames scheduled an appointment a few days later for the EAP evaluation. Before it could take place, she was discovered to be intoxicated at work. The intoxication was verified by a blood test, and Home Depot fired Ames. She sued in federal court, claiming illegal discrimination based on a disability.


This case was expedited by the fact that Ames denied under oath that her alcoholism interfered with her work or personal life in any way. Therefore, it did not meet the legal definition of a disability under ADA. She also neglected to apply for FMLA. However, it is probable that even if she had been covered by both ADA and FMLA, her intoxication at work would have justified her termination under both the EAP agreement and the employer’s drug-free workplace policy. 


According to at least one attorney, this case underscores the fact that the employer can enforce the usual drug-free policy, and impose the usual performance standards, even when an employee is an alcoholic or addicted to drugs.



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