HR Management & Compliance

5th Circuit Rejects Disability Discrimination Claim Based on Alcoholism

An employer wasn’t liable to a former employee who alleged he was terminated because of a disability, his alcoholism, the 5th Circuit recently decided. Although the appeals court didn’t directly address whether alcoholism qualified as a protected disability when it upheld a New Orleans-based district court ruling, the opinion offers guidance on how employers can avoid liability when discharging employees.

Supervisor Recommends Discharge After Only a Month

Justin Moore worked as an orthopedic implant coordinator for Centralized Management Services (CMS). He was responsible for developing business for CMS in the New Orleans market. Part of his job duties included setting up conference calls and meetings with clients and sending reports to corporate management about his progress.

About a month after Moore’s employment with CMS began, supervisor Angela Jones sent an e-mail documenting his poor job performance. According to the note, he had failed to complete assignments, respond to e-mails, or communicate with supervisors and clients. She then sent an e-mail to the company’s chief operating officer recommending Moore be terminated.

A few days later, Moore let Jones know he suffered from alcoholism and had encountered a relapse after years of being in recovery. Shortly thereafter, he entered a month-long treatment program before attempting to return to work. Five days after completing the program, Moore was told he was being discharged for poor performance.

Afterward, Moore filed a lawsuit against CMS in the federal district court in New Orleans alleging he was terminated because of his alcoholism and because he sought treatment. The employer asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing he had been let go for nondiscriminatory reasons—specifically, because he didn’t perform his job duties adequately.

District Court Rejects Disability Discrimination Claims

The district court judge first considered CMS’s arguments that Moore was terminated for nondiscriminatory reasons. The court began by noting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a “disability” as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” of an individual. While the courts typically interpret the ADA expansively (giving the benefit of the doubt to coverage of a given physical or mental condition), an employee filing a disability discrimination claim still must show his particular condition “impose[s] a substantial limitation on a major life activity.”

The court noted a long line of previous court decisions finding alcoholism is not a disability per se. Although other courts have found employers liable for discriminating against recovering alcoholics, each instance of an alleged disability requires a case-by-case determination of whether the individual’s impairment substantially limits a major life activity. The court ultimately concluded Moore didn’t suffer from a protected disability, noting his testimony that he (1) had an otherwise successful career and (2) was unable to perform his work only during his relapse.

Even when alcoholism is a qualifying disability, you may hold an alcoholic to the same job performance standards as a nonalcoholic, according to the court’s ruling. Because CMS documented and submitted evidence of Moore’s poor job performance, the court concluded he was dismissed for nondiscriminatory reasons.

5th Circuit Sides with Employer, Too

On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed with the lower court that CMS fired Moore for poor job performance rather than his alleged disability. In reaching the conclusion, the appellate court didn’t consider evidence and case law concerning whether his alcoholism constituted a disability. Rather, it focused on the employer’s records leading up to his termination.

Notably, Jones had e-mailed company executives detailing the issues with Moore’s job performance and recommending his termination before he disclosed his alcoholism. Consequently, the 5th Circuited concluded he was let go for nondiscriminatory reasons. Plus, he put forth no proof CMS’s reasons were a mere pretext (or cover-up) to fire him for the alcoholism.

Takeaways for Other Employers

In many ways, it can be difficult to predict whether a court will find a terminated employee had a protected disability under the ADA. While some conditions clearly qualify as disabilities requiring you to make a reasonable accommodation if possible, other conditions such as alcoholism and other substance abuse issues require a closer evaluation.

If an employee lets you know she has a disability, you should begin to engage in an interactive process to determine whether an accommodation is feasible or necessary. If you treat employees with protected disabilities less favorably than other similarly situated workers without a disability, your company can be liable for employment discrimination.

When deciding whether to terminate an employee, it’s important to have detailed documentation about the reasons. CMS was able to avoid liability because of Jones’ detailed documentation about Moore’s poor job performance before he disclosed his alcoholism. Documenting an employee’s shortcomings, warnings, counselings, and other issues can be vital in defending a company against such claims.

H. Mark Adams is a partner in Jones Walker’s labor and employment practice group in New Orleans. He can be reached at madams@joneswalker.com. Jacob J. Pritt is an Associate in Jones Walker’s labor and employment practice group in New Orleans. He can be reached at jpritt@joneswalker.com.