In a non-precedential opinion, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a hospital’s firing of a security guard who had admitted that he was a recovering drug addict. Because that firing was based upon the fact that the employee previously had denied prior drug or alcohol addition/treatment, the court found that the hospital’s reason for the termination—the employee’s dishonest disclosure—was not a pretext for discrimination. Reilly v. Lehigh Valley Hospital, No. 12-2078, (3rd Cir. March 29, 2013).
Robert Reilly was employed by Lehigh Valley Hospital (LVH) as a part-time security officer from August 2006 until May 2, 2008. During the application process, Reilly was asked to respond to the following two questions: (1) “Have you ever been recognized as or diagnosed with alcoholism or drug addiction?” and (2) “Have you ever been or are you now being treated for alcoholism or drug addiction?” Reilly answered “No” to both of the questions and left blank a question that asked for information on any such treatment. A handwritten note on the application says “denies drug/alcohol addiction.” The application form included a statement that “falsifying of this information could result in withdrawal of the employment offer or if subsequently discovered termination of employment.”
On April 5, 2008, Reilly was admitted to the emergency room of LVH to receive treatment for a work-related eye injury. During that visit, Reilly disclosed a history of narcotics use to the treating physician and admitted that he was a recovering addict. When an LVH employee sustains a possible work-related injury and is treated by LVH, the medical records routinely are furnished to the hospital’s Health Services department, which manages and administers workers’ compensation issues. Upon receiving Reilly’s records, Health Services informed LVH’s Human Resources department of Reilly’s statement regarding his addiction and recovery. Reilly was fired on May 2, 2008, for failure to disclose the information during the application process.
Reilly filed a lawsuit against LVH alleging disability discrimination. During a deposition in the case, Reilly testified that following a conviction for DUI in 1995, he attended approximately 40 hours at a drug and alcohol treatment center as part of an Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition program. He testified that he did not consider himself to have received addiction treatment at that point, because he continued to abuse drug and alcohol after that time.
LVH’s motion for summary judgment in the case was granted by the district court, and Reilly appealed. The Third Circuit upheld the decision. In applying the now well-known McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, the Third Circuit found that Reilly was able to set forth a prima facie case of discrimination, and that LVH was able to proffer the required legitimate business reason for its action. The district court found—and the Third Circuit agreed—that Reilly failed to satisfy the third step by adducing sufficient evidence to show that LVH’s reason was simply a pretext for discrimination.
The court viewed the primary issue in the case as “whether the decision-maker at LVH could regard Reilly’s responses as dishonest.” According to the court: “The answer to that question is resoundingly, ‘yes.’” The evidence established that Reilly received 40 hours of addiction treatment and that he regularly attended and still attends Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. In spite of those facts, Reilly answered “no” to questions on the employment application asking whether he had ever been or currently was “recognized as,” “diagnosed with,” or “treated for” alcohol or drug addiction. Given that circumstance, Reilly is unable to prove that LVH’s proffered reason for his firing—dishonesty—was a pretext for discrimination.
This case is not a license to fire individuals simply because they are or have been in drug or alcohol rehabilitation. In fact, it is important to recognize that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an individual who is in recovery for drug or alcohol addiction may be considered to be protected under the Act. However, this case does point out the fact that language on an employment application clearly informing applicants that dishonest responses can lead to non-hire or even firing will be upheld by a court.