Suspension of alcoholic employee does not violate ADAAA

An employer did not discriminate against an alcoholic worker by suspending her for being drunk at work and ordering her to remain alcohol- and drug-free for one year, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in Clifford v. Rockland Cnty., (2d Cir., No. 12-3083).

The 2nd Circuit affirmed that special conditions imposed on employees identified as substance abusers are not grounds for discrimination and retaliation claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).

Deirdre Clifford was suspended from her position as a cashier at a Rockland County, N.Y., health department cafeteria after she was cited for being intoxicated at work. Clifford served her suspension and eventually signed a return-to-work agreement that required her to submit to random drug and alcohol tests for one year upon her return.

She was later injured after collapsing in the kitchen and remained unable to work at the time she filed the complaint.

Clifford sued the county, alleging discrimination and retaliation under the ADAAA, among other claims. Specifically, she argued that the county failed to engage in the ADAAA-required “interactive process,” or otherwise to make reasonable accommodations for her alcoholism, and that the discipline she received was discriminatory because it effectively prohibited her from ingesting alcohol while off duty, a condition not imposed on workers without an alcohol-related disability.

The court was not convinced that she was denied a reasonable accommodation. “Here, it is undisputed that, over the years of Clifford’s employment, the County had accommodated her disability by acceding to requests for time off to secure treatment for relapses,” the court said. “Clifford can hardly charge the County with having failed to afford her a reasonable accommodation when, instead of pursuing termination after the [initial] incident, it agreed to a suspension that afforded her the opportunity to return to work on a showing that she posed no serious risk of relapse.”

The court noted that the county terminated at least two other hospital employees for substance-abuse violations.

“Clifford cannot demonstrate that the County’s actions in affording her an opportunity to return to her job were pretexts for discriminatory bias,” the court said.

The court also found that Clifford’s contention that the discipline she received was discriminatory failed to raise evidence of pretext. “While its provision that, for a year following Clifford’s return to work, no level of alcohol in her blood would be tolerated was one not generally imposed on other employees, we have already ruled that special conditions imposed on employees identified as substance abusers do not violate the ADA.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.

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