Can Your Employer Fire You For Alcoholism?

Posted March 22, 2012 in Labor and Employment by

A former Spokane police officer is suing the city after he was fired for a DUI hit-and-run conviction. The officer, Brad Thoma, claims he is an alcoholic and is therefore protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Does he have a case?

  • Alcoholism is protected under ADA; employers must make accommodations
  • Stupid behavior due to alcohol consumption is not protected
  • Wisconsin mayor ousted by citizens for public drunkenness


Draw the Line


Alcoholism is considered a disability under the ADA, and therefore is protected against discrimination in the workplace. However, don’t think that means that showing up to the office soused, sexually harassing the marketing director and then crashing the company car in a DUI is okay.

In general, the rule is fairly clear: An employer cannot fire an employee for being an alcoholic. However, employees certainly can be let go for drinking on the job, or for otherwise failing to do their jobs or follow workplace rules because of alcohol consumption. “Normally, you draw the line when the behavior results in performance problems or misconduct at the workplace,” says Eric Welter, an employment attorney in Virginia. “So if you’re out drinking late and you oversleep and show up to work late, the employer can discipline you for being late to work. But if you tell the employer that you are an alcoholic and you’d like to go to treatment so you don’t have the problem again, the employer can’t then discriminate against you because you’re an alcoholic.”


Reasonable Accommodations

Under the ADA, the employer is responsible for making reasonable accommodations for an employee’s disability. In the case of alcoholism, that doesn’t mean allowing workers to drive drunk– usually it means giving them an opportunity to seek help and dry up. “The only accommodation I’ve really seen is allowing people some time off to enter into a treatment program,” Welter says. “You’re not required to modify the essential functions of the job to accommodate somebody. Using the example I gave earlier, if you have a policy that people have to be at work on time, you don’t have to let them come in late because they’re an alcoholic. You can enforce your policy.”

In perhaps the most high-profile ADA defense in recent memory, Sheboygan Mayor Bob Ryan refused to step down from his position after several incidents of embarrassing public drunkenness and one sexual harassment lawsuit. When City Council tried to remove him from office, he reminded them that alcoholism is protected and challenged their ability to move forward. It didn’t matter– last month the citizens of Sheboygan took matters into their own hands and ousted their mayor in a recall vote.


Designed to Protect

Attorney Eric Welter

The limits of protections for alcoholics have come up repeatedly in court cases in recent years. In 2005, a garbage truck driver in New Jersey sued his local department of public works after he was fired for getting a second DUI, preventing him from driving the truck. The suit made the questionable claim that loss of license is a foreseeable consequence for an alcoholic and therefore protected by the ADA.

Last year, an alcoholic Florida State professor sued the school after he was fired for erratic and abusive behavior, claiming he was able to perform his job functions and therefore should be protected by the ADA.

And two years ago, the lawsuit of an Illinois police chief claiming he was protected from losing his job after causing a DUI car crash was tossed out by a federal judge. “Most of the cases come up when someone commits an act of misconduct and turns around and tries to defend themselves by saying it’s because they’re disabled because of alcoholism,” says Welter. “The way the law is written is to not allow people to be able to do that.”

In another case, the EEOC is suing a trucking company because they permanently banned an employee from driving after he self-reported as an alcoholic. The suit claims that the driver took a treatment course and wasn’t drinking anymore. “That would be an example of something that the law would be designed to protect against, assuming all those facts are true,” says Welter. “The idea would be that if you’re able to do your job, able to perform the essential functions, the law is designed to protect you against being subjected to adverse employment action because of a disability. Alcoholism is an impairment. If you’re able to do your job and you happen to be an alcoholic, you really have no business just firing somebody.”

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