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5th Cir.: Time off request for substance abuse program wasn’t ADA accommodation request

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Dive Brief:

  • La Grange Acquisitions, a processor of natural gas, didn’t run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act when it fired an employee with alcoholism after a court ordered him to attend a substance abuse program that conflicted with his shifts, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Aug. 4 in Mueck v. La Grange Acquisitions, L.P.
  • Following a third DWI, a court ordered the employee to attend a three-month, outpatient program that included weekly group sessions. He found co-workers to cover some of the hours he would miss to attend the sessions, and the employer sent out an email asking for volunteers to trade hours on the remaining four dates. No one responded, and La Grange fired the employee.
  • He sued, alleging the employer failed to accommodate his disability. A federal district court ruled in favor of La Grange; the 5th Circuit, which covers, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, affirmed. The employee’s accommodation claim failed because his “terse references” to his struggles with drinking and his identifying as an alcoholic when he told managers about the court-ordered treatment weren’t enough to put La Grange on notice that he needed an ADA accommodation, the 5th Circuit said.

Dive Insight:

Alcoholism can be a disability covered by the ADA, according to the Job Accommodation Network, a U.S. Department of Labor program. The law allows employers to require that employees not be under the influence of alcohol at work, but employers also may need to provide accommodations for the alcoholism. This could include time off for treatment, or permission to skip a work event where alcohol will be served, according to JAN.

The law doesn’t require employees to use any “magic words” when requesting an accommodation. In fact, they need not even know the ADA exists. In 2019, for example, the 8th Circuit held that Dollar General failed to grant an accommodation to a worker with anxiety, depression and migraines who texted her supervisor asking for time off but failed to use ADA-specific language.

When an employee connects the dots between a medical condition and difficulty working, they have kicked off the ADA’s interactive process, an attorney previously told attendees at a National Employment Law Institute conference. Managers should ask how they can help, document the conversation and then follow steps prescribed by the employer’s HR department.

In Mueck, the plaintiff argued that the lower court improperly imposed this “magic word” requirement on him, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission urged the appeals to see it that way. “[A] jury could find that La Grange knew [the employee’s] alcoholism was a disability because [he] told his supervisors that he was an alcoholic, that his drinking was affecting every aspect of his life, that he was attending AA meetings four to five times per week, and that he needed to attend substance-abuse counseling because his life had fallen apart,” the federal agency said.

But the 5th Circuit was not persuaded. La Grange viewed the request for time off as one to deal with legal consequences — not because of a disability, it concluded; “no reasonable juror could have found that [the employee], by notifying La Grange that his court-ordered classes would conflict with his shift schedule and informing his supervisors that he was attempting to resolve this conflict by finding coverage, was requesting an accommodation for his disability of alcoholism.”

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