A federal district court in Pennsylvania ruled that an alcoholic employee may proceed with claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) after she was fired for failing to report to work when she was arrested for public drunkenness.  Diaz v. Saucon Valley Manor Inc., No. 12-0433 (E.D. Pa. March 5, 2013).  The evidence showed that Diaz’s supervisors were aware of her alcoholism and knew that she had requested medical leave to obtain treatment for alcoholism.  Her request for leave had been granted.  Moreover, six weeks prior to her termination, she received “excellent” scores on her performance evaluation.  The day before Diaz was scheduled to begin alcohol rehabilitation, she did not report for work and was terminated after the employer heard a rumor that Diaz had been arrested for public drunkenness.

Diaz asserted claims of disability discrimination and retaliation under the ADA.  The employer argued that her termination was not discriminatory because she failed to report for work, was arrested for public drunkenness, and violated the employer’s attendance policies.  Diaz argued that she had no prior history of being late or absent from work; that she had requested the day off to attend a court hearing; and that she had already received approval to begin her medical leave on the following day.  Moreover, the company president testified at a deposition that Diaz’s arrest was “unimportant” because it did not happen at work.  The court denied summary judgment for the employer because there were issues of fact as to whether Diaz was terminated for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons.

While employers are not required to tolerate drunkenness at work, employees who seek treatment for alcoholism or substance abuse are protected under the ADA as well as many comparable state and local laws.  Employers may not discriminate against recovering alcoholics and substance abusers and should examine the circumstances of a potential termination carefully to avoid the appearance of discrimination.