Recently University of Southern California head football coach Steve Sarkisian filed a lawsuit against the university alleging that he had been wrongfully terminated because of his disability, alcoholism. This raises the interesting question as to whether alcoholism is a protected status and what obligations employers have towards alcoholic employees.
Alcoholism is considered a form of disability both under our state anti-discrimination law, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). It is beyond legal dispute that a person with alcoholism falls into the “protected category” of “disabled” under the anti-discrimination laws.
Coach Sarkisian’s lawsuit alleges that he was terminated while on a flight to enter an alcohol-treatment facility. The lawsuit asserts, “Under the circumstances of this case, [the] law required USC to make reasonable accommodation of giving Steve Sarkisian time off to get help for his disability and then return to his job. Instead, USC ignored both its obligations under [the] law and the commitments it made to Steve Sarkisian.”
The purpose of this blog entry is not to judge the actions of Steve Sarkisian or the basis of his termination. Rather, his lawsuit is a jumping off point to talk about issues which exist for many employees here in New Jersey. Those individuals who may suffer from alcoholism may identify with Coach Sarkisian and wonder what rights they have.
First, let’s make it clear–An employer cannot terminate someone simply because they are disabled. The mere fact that a person is an alcoholic cannot, by itself, form a legal basis for termination. If the employee gets drunk every night, but shows up at work, performs his/her job without issue, and then returns to drinking, the fact of that alcoholism is not a legitimate basis for termination. In fact, New Jersey law is very broad on this point. It goes so far as to suggest that an alcoholic employee cannot be terminated even if he/she shows up drunk on the job, so long as the inebriated status does not affect work performance. A.D.P. v. ExxonMobil, 428 N.J. Super. 518 (App. Div. 2012).
Now, there are certainly exceptions to that rules. People with certain types of jobs cannot be allowed to perform under the influence regardless of disability. Those include positions such as drivers where there are superseding laws pertaining to the safe operation of vehicles. No court has suggested, and no argument can be made, that a school bus driver should be permitted to operate a bus under the influence. However, for people in other types of position, a more fact sensitive inquiry must be undertaken.
Next, let’s talk about the second piece of the puzzle – reasonable accommodation. Employers in New Jersey are required to reasonably accommodate the disabilities of their employees. Reasonable accommodation is a fact specific inquiry and there are no specific rules which apply to every employer. In other words, there are no “one size fits all” applications of the obligation to accommodate. The size of the employer, the nature of the work, and the tasks performed by the employee are all critical considerations. What is clear, however, is that leave to address a medical issue can be viewed as a reasonable accommodation. Thus if an alcoholic employee requests time off to go to rehabilitation, that may be viewed as a request for accommodation. The employer cannot simply say “no,” but rather must engage in an interactive process to determine if the accommodation, or perhaps some other accommodation, can be provided. Critically, remember, that an employee cannot be terminated for requesting an accommodation.
Alcoholism clearly carries a stigma in our modern culture. People are often embarrassed to talk about it and do not know how to respond to others who raise it. However, in the eyes of the law, alcoholism is not viewed differently than any other disability. Employees who suffer from alcoholism are entitled to the same rights and protections. Any employee who feels that he/she has been discriminated against because of his/her alcoholism should seek a qualified employment attorney.