Is alcoholism protected by the ADA and FMLA?

April 6, 2012


Vandenbroek worked as a boiler utility operator at PSEG Power. His job entailed him being responsible for monitoring boilers and responding to alarms. His employer, PSEG, had in place a strict attendance policy for its employees. For example, the policy rules provided that any employee who violated the "no call/no show" policy was subject to discharge for the first offense.

Vandenbroek was an alcoholic, and his condition required him to take Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave for alcoholism treatment. After receiving treatment, he admitted that "he didn't know how to take control of his life." Following his return from leave, he experienced attendance problems in violation of PSEG's strict attendance policy and he was ultimately fired for his erratic attendance.

Vandenbroek filed suit against PSEG, alleging that he was terminated for being an alcoholic and for taking medical leave in violation of the ADA and the FMLA. The Second Circuit court held that Vandenbroek failed to show that PSEG violated the ADA when it fired him for alcoholism. The court concluded that "reliable attendance at scheduled shifts was an essential function of a boiler utility operator" to ensure against a power outage or explosion.

Since the court reached its conclusion on other grounds, the court didn't decide whether his alcoholism was a qualifying disability under the ADA. This case outlines that there is no set formula for determining whether alcoholism is a qualifying disability. Further, despite their condition, you can hold alcoholics to the same qualifications and essential job functions as other employees. The second being quite interesting in the face of the statistics about alcoholics: according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 17.6 million people -- about one in 12 adults -- abuse alcohol. What the court has said in this case is that they will be expected to fulfill their job requirements just as all other employees.