Does Asking About Employee’s Alcohol Use Violated the ADA?
In Lansdale v. UPS Supply Chain Solutions, Inc., No. 16-4106 (July 23, 2019), the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota concluded that a jury had sufficient evidence to find that an employer’s discharge of an employee for suspected corporate credit card abuse following an investigation in which the employee was asked about his alcohol use and drinking habits did not constitute disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or corresponding state law.
The employer had a policy prohibiting employees from using corporate credit cards for personal purchases and providing inaccurate expense reports. Following an audit that revealed discrepancies between the employee’s corporate credit card expenses and expense reports, the employer conducted an investigation. During the investigation, the employer interviewed the employee, who indicated that he had used his corporate card for personal charges in order to hide his alcohol consumption from his wife. During the interview, the employer asked the employee several questions about his drinking habits and how his drinking affected his health and family. The following morning, the employer discharged the employee.
The employee contended that he had been asked impermissible disability-related questions and that his employment had been terminated based on his responses. Under the ADA, an employer “shall not make inquiries of an employee as to whether such employee is an individual with a disability or as to the nature or severity of the disability, unless such examination or inquiry is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.”
The court found that the jury had been provided sufficient evidence to find that, even if the questions posed to the employee had been disability-related inquiries, the inquiries had not caused the termination of his employment; rather, the employee’s acknowledgement that he had used his corporate credit card for personal use was a sufficient evidentiary basis for a jury to find that this admission by itself was the reason for the termination.
Additionally, while alcoholism may constitute a disability under the ADA and corresponding state laws, this case confirms that an employee so claiming must still establish that he or she had an impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities, or that the employer regarded him or her as having such an impairment, and that it was a motivating factor in the termination decision.
Here, the court found that a reasonable jury, weighing the credibility of the witnesses—in particular, the employee’s own testimony about his alcohol consumption and how it impacted him, his wife’s testimony that he drank nightly, and his doctor’s testimony that he drank more than what was recommended (though the doctor never applied any diagnostic criteria or noted any serious concerns)—could have found that the employee failed to prove that he suffered from an impairment that substantially limited one or more of his major life activities, that the employer regarded him as having such an impairment, and that it was a motivating factor in the termination decision. In the end, the employee’s belated attempts to claim a disability to excuse his corporate credit card and expense report abuses were insufficient to establish a disability discrimination claim.