The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) greatly expands the definition of those considered disabled, and thus the requirement to provide reasonable accommodations. However, a recent case from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals demonstrates that the ADAAA may give employers broad rights in rehabilitating alcohol and drug- dependent employees. Specifically, the Third Circuit upheld an employer’s decision to require an alcoholic driver to remain drug and alcohol free as a condition of returning to work. Ostrowski v. Con-Way Freight Inc., No. 12-3800, 2013 WL 5814131 (3d Cir. 2013).
In this case, the plaintiff was employed as a driver sales representative. The employer was subject to federal motor carrier safety regulations, which required it to maintain strict drug and alcohol screening programs for its employees. The plaintiff requested a leave of absence pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to enter a rehabilitation program for the treatment of alcoholism. The employer granted the request and did not impose any discipline in connection with the leave. When the plaintiff returned to work, the employer required him to sign a “return-to- work agreement,” in which he agreed to remain “free of drugs and alcohol (on company time as well as off company time) for the duration of his employment.” Within a month of signing this agreement, however, the plaintiff again admitted himself into a center for the treatment of alcohol abuse after he suffered a relapse and resumed consuming alcohol. The employer terminated the plaintiff’s employment, with the sole reason being that he had consumed alcohol in violation of the return-to-work agreement. The plaintiff then sued the employer, alleging violations of the FMLA, ADAAA and other state laws. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, and the plaintiff appealed.
The Third Circuit upheld the district court’s decision. First, the court noted that Congress intended to interpret the term “disability” broadly and that the plaintiff had successfully created a factual dispute as to whether his alcoholism was a disability pursuant to the ADAAA. However, the court noted that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the employer used the return-to- work agreement as a pretext for disability discrimination. The court explained that employers do not violate the ADAAA merely by entering into return-to-work agreements that impose employment conditions different from those of other employees. Such agreements that bar an employee from consuming alcohol – whether at the workplace or otherwise – have been recognized and upheld in many circumstances. Although the plaintiff was subject to different standards than other employees who did not sign a return-to-work agreement, the difference results from the terms of the agreement rather than disability discrimination. The court reasoned that such agreements do not discriminate because of an alleged disability (alcoholism) or restrict the ability of individuals who suffer from alcoholism to work. Rather, such agreements merely regulate the conduct (drinking alcohol), prohibiting employees subject to its terms from doing so. Thus, such agreements are not invalid under the ADAAA.
Jeffrey G. Jones is a regional managing member for Wimberly Lawson Wright Daves & Jones PLLC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.