United States: A Reminder: Addiction Can Be A Disability

Last Updated: January 17 2019
Article by Amy J. Traub

A recent case in Michigan federal court is heading to a jury trial after an employer lost a summary judgment motion aimed at dismissing a former employee's Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) retaliation and interference claims and disability discrimination claims under federal and state laws. The case also serves as a reminder to employers that, in some cases, an employee's drug addiction can constitute a disability under discrimination laws.

In Rumph v. Randazzo Mech. Heating & Cooling, Inc., an account manager at an HVAC installation and repair company with a history of drug addiction was terminated just days after she had returned to work from FMLA leave. Prior to her termination, she was assigned to a new supervisor due to a company restructuring. She alleges that a supervisor was copied on an email exchange with the company's benefits coordinator about getting the employee's Suboxone (an opioid addiction treatment drug) prescription filled and that the supervisor stated that she could not "fathom what type of prescription would cost that much." The plaintiff claims she disclosed to her manager that she had a previous opioid addiction, depression, anxiety and ADHD and that she needed to see her doctor monthly. The plaintiff further alleges that, as a result, the company's CFO learned of her previous addiction and changed his attitude toward her. Soon afterward, she took FMLA leave to care for her dying mother. After she returned to work, she missed two days of work and was told that her job was being eliminated.

She sued, claiming that she was fired based on her history of opioid abuse and that her employer was also aware of her depression, anxiety and ADHD at the time of her termination. In addition to bringing claims of disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state law, she alleged FMLA interference and retaliation.

The employer moved for summary judgment on the employee's claims, but the court denied it. On her disability discrimination claims, the court found that the employee had established that her medical ailments were disabilities, that she was qualified for the job and that her employer was aware of her disabilities. On the FMLA interference claim, the court held there was a genuine dispute as to whether the employee was reinstated to her prior position, because she was terminated just days after she returned to work. According to the court, a jury could reject the employer's explanation that it fired the employee because she missed two days of work soon after returning from FMLA leave, and the company's nondiscriminatory reasons for her termination could be seen as pretext. On the FMLA retaliation claim, the court found that the employee's termination was an adverse action and that the temporal proximity of her termination just days after returning from FMLA leave evidenced a causal connection to her FMLA leave. As a result of this decision, the case is headed to a jury trial in February 2019.

Like the plaintiff in this case, former drug addicts may be protected under the ADA because the addiction may be considered a substantially limiting impairment. However, the ADA does not protect former casual drug users or employees who are "currently engaging" in the illegal use of drugs, whether casually or based on an addiction, if the employer acts on the basis of the illegal drug use.

As more states are passing laws legalizing marijuana use (which in some cases include anti-discrimination provisions) and as a result of the growing opioid crisis, more employers are having to address employment issues involving employee drug use. Employers should develop and update workplace policies and procedures to prepare for such situations, and human resources and management personnel should receive bestpractices training for handling these types of situations.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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