The ADA: When Does an Alcoholic Diagnosis ‘Wear Off’?

Alcoholism has always been a tricky diagnosis under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). You can discipline employees if their drinking affects the job. But you must offer ADA accommodations for treatment (including time off).  

However, one court recently made things more complicated. It ruled that an employee returning from treatment was properly fired even though he passed a fitness-for-duty test. Does this ruling sound a little tipsy? Read on …

Case in Point: Sakari, a truck driver from Georgia, told his supervisor he was having problems with alcohol. He took FMLA leave from work for treatment.

Upon discharge, he was cleared for duty. Sakari’s personal physician diagnosed him as being in remission, yet stated, “You always carry the diagnosis.” Another doctor who participated in the fitness-for-duty exam commented, “An alcoholic is an alcoholic for life.”

Despite being medically cleared to return to work after his FMLA leave, Sakari was fired when he came back to work. The company said that Sakari was no longer qualified to work as a trucker because, under Department of Transportation regulations, he carried a “current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism.”

Sakari sued his employer under the ADA, claiming he was able to do the essential elements of his job as evidenced by being cleared for duty. The company pushed back, saying Sakari’s seven-day old diagnosis was considered “current.” Therefore, it claimed, he was not covered by the ADA because he had a current diagnosis of alcoholism, albeit it was in remission.

The result: A lower court sided with the company, dismissing his claim. Sakari appealed, but the appeals court ruled the same way. The court did not, however, say exactly when an alcoholic diagnosis would “wear off.”

“We are not prepared to draw a bright line as to how much time must pass before a diagnosis of alcoholism is no longer ‘current,’ but we hold that a seven-day-old diagnosis is current. (Sakari) didn’t somehow ‘lose’ that diagnosis between the date of his discharge from treatment and his termination a week later by his employer.” (Jarvela v. Crete Carrier Corp., 11th Cir., No. 13-11601, 1/28/15)

Three Lessons Learned …Without Going to Court

  1. Know the nature of alcoholism. While alcoholism can be in remission, the diagnosis can linger under the ADA. 
  2. Get your attorney to weigh in. The court noted that the employer took the time and resources to get legal advice to navigate the complicated road of alcoholism. Point for employer.
  3. Write detailed job descriptions. The key to your employment decisions may be in applicable regulations. Make sure your job descriptions reflect those requirements and don’t just stay in a binder.