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Court Ruling Highlights When Alcoholism Is and Is Not ADA-Protected

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A recent case regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) shows that saying you are disabled and proving it in court are two very different things.

Discrimination, harassment claims

James Johnson, an addiction counselor assistant at the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS), filed a disability discrimination suit under the ADA against his employer (case). He claimed that because he was a recovering alcoholic, he was discriminated against and harassed.

Johnson alleges that he was passed over for a promotion, denied a transfer, and assigned jobs "nobody wants to do," because of his disability.

Johnson said he received negative performance evaluations because of his alcoholism, which created a hostile work environment.

Not a disability

The plaintiff's claim failed for two reasons. The first was that Johnson could not prove a connection between the alleged harassment and his alcoholism. In fact, the plaintiff could not even show that OASAS was aware of his condition.

But the second — and more important — reason Johnson's claim failed was that he could not prove his alcoholism was considered a disability under the ADA.

To meet the ADA's definition of a disability, the plaintiff would have to show that:

  • he suffered from a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities
  • he had a record of such impairment, and
  • the company regarded him as having that impairment.

It was not enough to support his claim that Johnson considered himself a recovering alcoholic.

The court said:

Although alcoholism is considered an "impairment" under the ADA [...] "more than a physical or mental impairment is required" to satisfy the definition of a "disability." Because "[m]ere status as an alcohol or substance abuser does not necessarily imply a 'limitation' under the "anti-discrimination statutes, a plaintiff who alleges that he is disabled "must demonstrate not only that he . . . was actually addicted to drugs or alcohol in the past, but also that this addiction substantially limits one or more of his [...] major life activities."

Posted In: Drugs/Alcohol, Abuse and Testing; Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Want to know more? Read the full article by Rachel Mucha at HR Morning

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