HR Management & Compliance, Recruiting, Uncategorized

$110K Penalty Shows: Alcoholism is an ADA-protected Condition

Employers, pay heed. A recent court outcome — and hefty monetary award for the employee — reiterate the fact that alcoholism is a disability protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Following a five-day trial a federal jury in Pennsylvania awarded more than $109,000 to a cook whose rights, it found, had been violated when her employer wrongfully terminated her because of her alcoholism.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania awarded Julie Diaz an additional $10,684.62 in liquidated damages under the Family and Medical Leave Act and $1,388.58 for pre-judgment interest on her back-pay damages award under ADA.

The case is Diaz v. Saucon Valley Manor, Inc., 2013 WL 4564300 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 27, 2013).

Employer Fired Alcoholic Worker While in Rehab

Diaz worked as a cook at Saucon Valley Manor from December 2007 until June 2010 when owner Nimita Kapoor-Atiyeh terminated her after hearing a rumor that Diaz was not at work, had been arrested for public drunkenness outside of the job and was entering rehabilitation for 28 days.

Diaz subsequently sued Saucon and Atiyeh for $150,000 in punitive and compensatory damages. She brought six counts against Saucon, including two counts each for violating ADA and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, and one count each for a violation of FMLA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. §794) based on Saucon’s failure to accommodate her disability.

Court Weighs in

In his decision on whether to award liquidated damages, Judge Rice said that Saucon Valley Manor, Inc., an assisted living facility in Hellertown, Pa., “failed to properly train its directors and supervisors about employees’ rights under the FMLA” and “failed to take the appropriate ‘affirmative steps’ needed to ascertain and comply with the Act’s requirements,” when it terminated Diaz at the time she began a 28-day alcohol abuse treatment program.

Rice said he denied summary judgment to Saucon in his initial ruling on the case because: (1) he did not agree with the company’s assertion that Diaz “flagrantly violated” company policies; and (2) he concluded that Saucon did not present any argument specifically addressing Diaz’ claims.

The district court also permitted Diaz’ FMLA interference claim to advance to jury trial because: (1) Atiyeh had supervisory authority over Diaz; (2) Atiyeh was responsible for Diaz’ firing; and (3) evidence in the form of a supervisor’s alleged comments created an issue of material fact as to whether Atiyeh knew about Diaz’ request for a leave of absence.

For more detailed coverage of the case, see Employer May Need to Consider Accommodation for Alcohol-Related Disability, Says Court.


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