The New Jersey Superior Court recently overturned a lower court’s summary decision dismissing the plaintiff’s claims of disability discrimination on the basis of her voluntary admission of alcoholism.
Our New Jersey employment lawyers know it is a little-known fact that alcoholism is considered a disability, both under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. What this means is that you cannot be discriminated or retaliated against by your employer for seeking substance abuse treatment or for simply admitting you are an alcoholic or a drug addict.
This may not summarily protect your position if you show up for work intoxicated, if your job performance is poor or if you are putting others at risk. But in this case, the long-term employee was performing well and had no disciplinary issues. What’s more, the company’s internal policy on which her termination was based was found by the state’s Superior Court to be “facially discriminatory,” though the company vehemently defended it.
The case, A.D.P. v. Exxonmobil Research and Engineering Company, originated with a voluntary admission from the employee to her employer that she was an alcoholic and was in an inpatient rehabilitation center receiving treatment. This admission was not the result of an inquiry or pressure from the employer based on poor job performance. In fact, she was performing quite well. Regardless, the company, by its own policy, subsequently required the employee to undergo regular alcohol testing in the form of breathalyzer tests and mandated that she sign an agreement pledging to abstain from alcohol.
When the employee in turn failed a random breathalyzer test, she was fired.
The Superior Court found that because the employee’s required breathalyzer test was based not on job performance or imposed on every employee regardless of disability, the employer in fact was engaging in discrimination.
The court underscored the fact that the employer had not made her sign this agreement as part of a “last chance agreement,” which might have been extended to an employee on shaky ground stemming from poor performance due to alcoholism. The employee was not the subject of any pending disciplinary action or internal investigation. In fact, managers for the defendant testified that the employee’s work was exemplary, and that the tests were mandated on factors other than her job performance.
Therefore, the court ruled, it was discriminatory.
N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 outlines that employers may not terminate a defendant on the basis of a disability. As alcoholism is a disability, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for alcoholics.
Because substance abuse is not widely accepted as a legitimate illness, many employers may not understand their responsibilities under the reasonable accommodations requirement. It doesn’t mean, for example, that an employer has to tolerate it if you come in late to work on a Monday or leave early on a Friday in order to binge. It does, however, mean the employer can’t target you for discipline because you sought substance abuse treatment or you had to leave a little early to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Reasonable accommodation means an employer has to be willing to work with you on these matters, so long as it does not create an undue hardship.
If you need to speak to an employment law attorney in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group at 973-781-1204 or (646) 867-7997.
A.D.P. v. Exxonmobile Research and Engineering Company, Oct. 26, 2012, Superior Court of New Jersey
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New Jersey Passes Law Against Gender Discrimination, Nov. 2, 2012, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog