“Regarding” An Alcoholic As Disabled: Proof Problems

by Labor & Employment Group

(402) 341-3070

A police officer in Spokane, Washington was involved in a car accident and drove away. He was subsequently arrested for driving under the influence and told his employer that he had an alcohol “problem.” In order to avoid criminal prosecution, he entered into a diversion program which mandated that he only drive vehicles containing an Ignition Interlock Device (IID). When the City advised they were considering discharging the officer, his doctor supplied the City with a document which indicated the doctor believed the officer suffered from alcoholism.

The officer then sought to require the City to accommodate him by allowing or permitting him to drive police vehicles only equipped with an IID. The City refused and his employment was terminated.

The police officer then filed a claim under both federal and state law contending the City “regarded” him as having a disability. He subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment in a case pending in federal court in the State of Washington claiming that alcoholism constituted a disability as a “matter of law.”

In denying his motion for summary judgment, the court first noted that prior to the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, in proving a “regarded as” claim, it must be demonstrated that the employer either believed the employee had a substantially limiting impairment which didn’t in fact exist or the employer believed the impairment was far more limiting than was actually the case. Following the passage of the ADAAA, the perceived severity of the impairment no longer matters; only that the employer thought an impairment existed. In denying the officer’s motion for summary judgment, the court noted that the City had several potential defenses. First, the City could convince the jury that it did not agree with the officer’s belief that he was in fact disabled. Secondly, the City could convince the jury that the employee was disabled for the sole purpose of determining how to address the Department of Labor requirement that the employee drive vehicles equipped with an IID. Finally, the City could also try and convince the jury that it never regarded the officer as disabled and that he was in fact fired for reasons unrelated to his alcoholism. For example, the City had to be given the opportunity to convince the jury that the officer was fired for leaving the scene of an accident, or potentially other reasons.

This case isn’t over. The denial of a motion for summary judgment only means the court believes there are still “material issues of fact” to be resolved, in this case, by a jury. Even so, the case helps to show that although the ADAAA amendments make the establishment of a claim of a “regarded as” disability much easier to prove by the employee, there are still various defenses available to an employer.

Share Button