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FMLA: Distinguish between disability and behavior

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in FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

Alcoholism can be a disabling medical condition that qualifies an employee to go on FMLA leave to undergo substance abuse treatment. But the same isn’t necessarily true for a drinking binge that lands an employee in the hospital.

Recent case: Terry Rasmussen worked in the meat department of a Cub Foods store in Minneapolis. In February 2006, he began calling in sick because of vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and gastroenteritis. From Feb. 20 to March 31, he missed 22 of 29 scheduled workdays.

In early March, Rasmussen went to the emergency room with the same symptoms, plus numbness and weakness on his left side. He told the ER staff he had been drinking between 12 and 24 beers a day. A doctor diagnosed him with pancreatitis, caused by the drinking.

On one of the days in March when Rasmussen reported to work, store managers said he looked “very rough” and was staggering. They told him to go home. In April, the company fired him for excessive absences.

Rasmussen sued, claiming Cub Foods had illegally denied him FMLA leave and discriminated against him based on his disability—alcoholism—under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA).

The court dismissed both claims, finding that Rasmussen’s drinking rendered him incapable of meeting the essential job function of regular attendance. It ruled that the drinking was not a qualified disability under the MHRA: “The MHRA will not shield Rasmussen from the consequences of his alcohol abuse.”

The court also concluded that his absence because of alcohol abuse did not qualify for FMLA leave. It viewed the binge-induced pancreatitis—even though it required hospital care—as having been caused by alcohol abuse and, therefore, not eligible for FMLA leave. (Rasmussen v. Jerry’s Enterprises, No. 07-1730, DC MN, 2008)

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