Walking a Straight (and Fine) Line: Alcoholism and the Americans with Disabilities Act

By Massengill, Douglas | Public Personnel Management, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Walking a Straight (and Fine) Line: Alcoholism and the Americans with Disabilities Act


Massengill, Douglas, Public Personnel Management


Notwithstanding the negative connotation associated with alcoholism and alcohol abuse, certain protections are afforded in the workplace by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). This paper will explore the extent of those protections and describe some of the issues surrounding them. An exhaustive review of all court decisions involving alcoholism and the ADA is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead it will examine a sample of Circuit Court of Appeals cases in order to extract some underlying principles.

The rationale for limiting the review to appellate decisions is based on the greater importance they carry in establishing precedence and creating principles to provide guidance for subsequence judicial decisions as well as providing direction for employers' actions. While it would have been possible to include more individual cases in the review, it was felt that doing so would create considerable redundancy in the principles illustrated. Therefore, cases were chosen based on the "richness" of the legal reasoning underlying the decisions.

Alcoholism Within the ADA Definition of Disability?.

Of critical importance is the question of whether alcoholism is a disability within the meaning of the ADA. Title 42 U.S.C. [section] 12102(2) provides as follows:

The term "disability" means, with respect to an individual:

a. a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual;

b. a record of such an impairment; or

c. being regarded as having such an impairment.

Some of the circuits have accepted without deciding that alcoholism is a disability. Others have made an explicit decision one way or the other.

For example, in Burch v. Coca-Cola Co., (1) the Fifth Circuit refused to accept that alcoholism is a per se disability under the ADA. It reversed the district court's denial of Coca-Cola's motion for judgment as a matter of law on Butch's ADA reasonable accommodation claim. Butch had maintained that Coca-Cola failed to reasonably accommodate him when it refused to allow him to return to his job after completing a rehabilitation program.

First the Court made a distinction between "disability" and "limitation." It stated that, "the existence ... of a disability or impairment is material to a reasonable accommodation claim only insofar as it limits an employee's ability to perform his or her job." (2) Then the Court differentiated between the requirements for showing disability when claiming intentional discrimination and when claiming failure to accommodate. It stated that in order to establish disability status when claiming intentional discrimination, one would be required to show an impairment that substantially limited a major live activity such as walking, seeing or hearing. However, in order to establish disability when claiming failure to accommodate, there must be a substantial limitation specifically on the major life activity of working.

In addressing the former, the Court noted that Burch's inebriation produced effects no different than that of a social drinker who overindulges:

   That Burch's inebriation was temporarily incapacitating is not
   determinative. Butch produced no evidence that the effects of his
   alcoholism-induced inebriation were qualitatively different than
   those achieved by an overindulging social drinker: in both
   situations, the natural result of overindulgence is the temporary
   impairment of senses, dulled reactions, and the prospect of a
   restless sleep followed by an unpleasant morning. (3)

   It also noted that even though Burch overindulged on a frequent
   basis, this did not indicate that the effects were permanent:

   Although Burch's alcoholism may have been permanent, he offered no
   evidence that he suffered from any substantially limiting impairment
   of any significant duration)

Finally the Court noted that his being hospitalized for alcoholism was not sufficient to indicate that he was disabled. …

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