One byproduct of the opioid epidemic is the number of people who are in treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD) and who are also employed or seeking employment in this state. For that group of people, the laws that prohibit disability discrimination offer certain substantial protections, which means that, if you’ve been denied employment or suffered workplace punishment because of your treatment, you may be able, with the help of a knowledgeable New Jersey disability discrimination lawyer, to win a lawsuit under federal and/or state anti-discrimination laws.
The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division reaffirmed and highlighted this aspect of disability discrimination law recently. The division’s new guidance document, entitled “The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Opioid Crisis: Combating Discrimination Against People in Treatment or Recovery,” highlight various ways that employers may run afoul of laws barring disability discrimination, and what those employees can do about it.
The guidance document reaffirmed that OUD is considered to be people with a disability under federal law. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), therefore, bars discrimination against most people with OUD who are not currently using. That includes people taking drugs (like methadone) that a doctor prescribed for them as part of their OUD treatment.
The new guidance document also reminded employers and employees that discrimination against a worker or job candidate because of his/her past opioid use could also represent a violation of the ADA. Federal law specifically prohibits discrimination against an employee or employment applicant because that person had a record of opioid use in the past. The division cites the example of a city employee who disclosed that he previously had successfully completed a treatment program for prescription opioid addiction and whose employer fired him as a result of that disclosure. That, the guidance document explained, could be a violation of the ADA.
As with many forms of illegal discrimination, you can win your case even if your employer’s belief was mistaken. You can, for example, win a sexual orientation discrimination action even if your employer mistakenly believed you were gay, or a pregnancy discrimination case based on your employer’s erroneous belief you were pregnant, and you can win a disability discrimination case if your employer took adverse action against you based on a mistaken belief that you had OUD. The guidance document offered the example of an employee who took opioids based on a legal prescription from her doctor. If her employer fired her because it erroneously believed she had OUD, that could be an ADA violation.
Opioid Use Treatment and Disability Discrimination Under New Jersey Law
Here in New Jersey, workers seeking treatment for OUD have protections under state law (the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination,) as well. State law, like federal law, recognizes OUD as a disability for purposes of anti-discrimination law. The LAD’s provisions barring disability discrimination also protect workers and job applicants who have completed or are undergoing treatment for OUD.
It is important to keep in mind that the law’s protections will not insulate all workers with OUD. Discrimination law allows an employer to terminate or otherwise discipline a worker with a disability if it had a legitimate reason for doing so. If, for example, the employer had proof that you showed up to work under the influence of illegal drugs, that you posed a safety risk, or that accommodating your OUD-related disability would inflict an undue burden on the employer, then the employer may legally fire you.
Say, for example, your OUD treatment involved taking medication that made you dizzy, lightheaded, and sleepy. If your job involved using heavy machinery, your employer might have a valid basis for removing you from that job.
The employer’s presentation of an allegedly legitimate reason, however, is not the end of your case. If you can prove that the stated legitimated reason was merely pretextual, then you can still win. For example, say that your OUD treatment medication caused you to suffer sleep issues and you occasionally arrived to work late. If your employer fired or disciplined you for multiple instances of tardiness, but you had proof that your employer applied its tardiness rules substantially less stringently in dealing with your non-disabled peers, you could still have a winning case.
If you are someone fighting each day to be sober, you should not be punished in the workplace because of your drug treatment or past drug use. In many circumstances, that kind of punishment can represent illegal disability discrimination. The experienced and aggressive New Jersey disability discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here to help. To get our team started on your case, contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.