Northern Exposure

Better an addict than a thief: disciplining drug- and alcohol-dependent employees

By Jennifer M. Shepherd and Hannah Roskey

It’s well established that discrimination against an employee on the basis of a physical or mental disability is prohibited in Canada. Drug or alcohol addictions constitute a “disability” under most human rights legislation such that employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees on the basis of their addictions.

But what if drug- or alcohol-addicted employees engage in serious misconduct, which they say they committed because of their addiction? Will it be considered discriminatory to discipline them for such conduct? The Court of Appeal in Alberta recently said “not necessarily” in Wright v. College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta (Appeals Committee).


Genevieve Wright and Mona Helmer were registered nurses in Alberta who suffered from addictions to opioid narcotics. They were caught stealing narcotics from their respective hospitals and falsifying medical records to conceal the thefts. The College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta initiated disciplinary proceedings for professional misconduct before the college’s hearing tribunal. Among other sanctions, the hearing resulted in the suspension of the nurses’ licenses.

Neither nurse disputed the allegations. But both argued they couldn’t be disciplined because their behavior was caused by their drug addiction. They reasoned that since drug and alcohol addiction constitutes a “disability” in Alberta human rights laws and the addiction drove them to commit the thefts and forge hospital records, any punishment imposed by the college for those behaviors would effectively be imposing a punishment on the basis of their disability. They alleged that such a punishment would be in violation of the antidiscrimination provisions in the Alberta Human Rights Act.

The college maintained that disciplinary measures were necessary to address the nurses’ misconduct and that the proceedings were, in fact, unrelated to the nurses’ drug addictions.

The hearing tribunal ultimately determined that a human rights defense hadn’t been made out. The nurses couldn’t demonstrate that their behavior was caused by their addictions. The nurses appealed to the college’s appeal committee, but the suspensions were upheld.

Appeal to the Alberta Court of Appeal

The nurses appealed further to the Alberta Court of Appeal. The court considered the decisions of the hearing tribunal and appeals committee and decided that while the nurses’ drug addictions were something that distinguished them from other members of the college who are subject to disciplinary proceedings, this distinction didn’t amount to discrimination.

The court accepted the evidence of the college that the decision to lay professional disciplinary charges wasn’t motivated by the nurses’ addiction but rather by their misconduct. As such, it was not discriminatory to hold these nurses accountable for the acts they had committed notwithstanding that they might have been motivated by their addiction.

The court commented that “there are a great many addicts who do not commit criminal acts, and it is not discriminatory to hold those who do accountable for their actions.”

Takeaway for employers

While this decision arose in the context of disciplinary proceedings initiated by a professional governing body, it is applicable to Canadian employers addressing employee misconduct where an employee claims that his or her behavior was caused by a drug or alcohol dependency. The decision confirms that discipline won’t automatically be considered discriminatory if:

  • The misconduct wasn’t directly caused by the condition; and
  • The employer can demonstrate that its focus was on addressing the behavior and not the addiction.

Although a disciplinary proceeding out of Alberta, the decision may be persuasive to arbitrators, courts, and human rights tribunals across the country.

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