HR Management & Compliance, Recruiting

Employee Who Left Drug Rehab Not Entitled to ADA, FMLA Protections

An employee who abused drugs and then failed to complete a rehabilitation program was not entitled to job protection by the Americans With Disabilities Act or the Family and Medical Leave Act, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

ADA does not protect illegal drug users who are not seeking treatment, and FMLA does not require job reinstatement when the employee was fired for reasons other than medical leave, the court held in Shirley v. Precision Castparts Corp., No. 12-20544 (5th Cir. Aug. 12, 2013).

Facts of the Case

Wyman-Gordon Forgings, L.P. had a policy that permitted employees with drug or alcohol problems to confidentially inform human resources and take leave for treatment. The policy states, however, that an employee “who rejects treatment or who leaves a treatment program prior to being properly discharged will be terminated.”

Bryan Shirley, an extrusion press operator for Wyman-Gordon, disclosed his addiction to and abuse of Vicodin and requested leave for treatment under that policy. His employer approved the leave and he entered a treatment program. He completed the first half, detoxifying, but checked himself out before completing the second half, addiction treatment. The program’s physician recommended against the move, saying that Shirley was in denial about his addiction and that his prospects for recovery without inpatient treatment were dim, according to the court.

His employer gave him a second chance, saying that if he returned to the program and successfully completed the treatment, he could return to work. Shirley readmitted himself to the program but after one day, checked out again.

Wyman-Gordon fired him and he sued, alleging ADA and FMLA violations. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas granted summary judgment for the employer and Shirley appealed.

ADA & FMLA Claims

While ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against a qualified individual on the basis of disability, the law exempts from coverage an employee who is currently engaging in illegal drug use. That includes both illegal street drugs and misuse of prescription drugs.

But Shirley invoked a safe harbor to the law’s coverage exclusion which protects a qualified individual who, among other things, is participating in a supervised rehabilitation program and is no longer engaging in such use. Shirley argued that he was covered by the second prong because he was participating in a supervised rehabilitation program and had not illegally used drugs for 11 days at the time he was fired.

The court disagreed. The fact that an employee has entered a rehabilitation program does not automatically bring that employee within the safe harbor’s protection, it said. It applies only to individuals who have been drug-free for a significant period of time, the court said, upholding summary judgment for the employer on the ADA claims.

Shirley also alleged that he was entitled to reinstatement because his leave was protected by FMLA. However, an individual’s right to reinstatement under FMLA is not unlimited, the court said. That right can be overridden by an employer’s prerogative to terminate an employee for “otherwise appropriate” reasons, such as violating the workplace policy requiring him to complete addiction treatment, it explained. No reasonable jury could find that Shirley was denied reinstatement for any reason other than his refusal to continue his FMLA leave period for the express purpose for which it was taken — completing his drug treatment, the court said, upholding summary judgment on the FMLA claims.

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