Alcoholism on the Job: The Tricky Issue Handling It Under the ADA

Article main image
Apr 2, 2014

By Eric B. Meyer

Alcoholism is generally a disability.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the term “disability” is broadly defined.

What matters is that the impairment substantially limits a major life activity. What doesn’t matter are the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures,” including such things as therapy, medication, or reasonable accommodations.

How does that relate to alcoholism?

Did employer violate the law by terminating employee?

Well, in our case, the plaintiff, David Crosby (not that David Crosby), required a one-month leave of absence to deal with his alcoholism. At the beginning of his in-patient treatment, he was evaluated as having significant functional impairments. Plus, he couldn’t work, which is a major life activity. Then, after completing rehab, he later relapsed.

Sounds like an impairment affecting major life activities to me; dude is disabled.

But, just because a disabled employee is fired doesn’t mean that the employer has violated the law.

Crosby sued his former employer for supposedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act as a result of his termination of employment after a 30-day stint in rehab.

The ADA prohibits employers from taking adverse employment actions because of an employee’s disability. In this particular case, the defendant claimed that it fired the plaintiff because he drove without a license for two days. However, the plaintiff countered with evidence that the employer had cut non-alcoholics slack for the same driving offenses.

Plus, the Plaintiff could demonstrate that several other drivers had their licenses suspended for driving while intoxicated, and yet they were retained by the employer in warehouse positions.

Dealing with an alcoholic employee

Thus, there was enough evidence to suspect that the plaintiff’s alcoholism motivated his termination. And the court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment. David Crosby will have his day in court!

So, how do you deal with an alcoholic employee?


While alcoholism may be a disability and, therefore, may trigger an obligation on the part of the employer to reasonably accommodate that disability, an employer can discipline, discharge or deny employment to an alcoholic whose use of alcohol adversely affects job performance or conduct. An employer also may prohibit drinking booze at work.

For more guidance on alcoholism and its effect in the workplace, check out this guidance from the EEOC.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.