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What Your New Jersey Employer Can (and Can’t) Do Upon Finding Out You Have an Addiction

Disability discrimination law exists to ensure that people with physiological and mental health conditions are allowed to compete and participate in the workplace on a level playing field with workers without disabilities. That holds true for workers who are addicts. If a worker with an addiction fails to meet the mandatory minimum obligations of her job, she can still be subject to discipline or termination, just as a worker without disabilities would be. However, the law stands to protect a worker with an addiction who is doing her job – and doing it adequately well – from adverse employment action based solely on the fact that she is an addict. If that has happened to you, do not delay in reaching out to an experienced New Jersey disability discrimination attorney.

Recently, the federal case of S.W. provided an example of an employer who acted within the law. Sixteen months into her employment, S.W. showed up to work intoxicated and was found to have possessed alcohol at her workplace. At that point, the employer became aware that S.W. was an alcoholic. The employer and employee struck a “last chance” agreement that said that S.W. would seek treatment for her alcoholism and, if she violated company policy again with regard to alcohol, she would be fired.

Two and a half years later, S.W. took two absences from work, claiming she has a stomach illness and a car accident, respectively. In reality, S.W. had been hospitalized due to a “several-day drinking binge.” The employer fired S.W.

That firing, according to the federal judge hearing S.W.’s disability discrimination case, was permissible. Even though alcoholism is a protected disability under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the employer had not terminated her for her alcoholism; it terminated her because she lied about her absences from work and, in lying, violated the terms of her “last chance” agreement. Even though the employee’s lies were related to her alcoholism, federal disability law still did not bar the employer from enforcing the terms of the “last chance” agreement and firing her.

That was an example of something an employer can do. By contrast…

A few years ago, the Appellate Division court in New Jersey gave an example of what an employer can’t do. In that case, a research associate, after 29 successful years on the job, disclosed to the employer’s nurse that she was an alcoholic, and planned to check into a treatment facility to address her alcoholism and depression. In those 29 years, the employer had never disciplined her, and no discipline was pending. She never drank on the job and never showed up “unfit for work” due to alcohol.

Nevertheless, the employer forced the employee to submit to random breathalyzer tests and fired her after she tested positive for alcohol. Unlike S.W., the research associate was not subject to any sort of “last chance” agreement with her employer or any other form of employment discipline.

As a result of that evidence, the Appellate Division court concluded that the associate had a viable case of disability discrimination. There was no evidence that the associate had ever worked while too drunk to do her job, and there was no evidence of her having violated other employer rules about alcohol (such as possessing alcohol on employer property.) The only basis for the employer’s action (demanding the drug tests) was the employee’s voluntary admission to the nurse that she was an alcoholic.

That, by contrast to S.W.’s case, was an example of something an employer cannot do without violating disability discrimination laws.

As a person with an addiction, you are entitled to be free of workplace disability discrimination based solely on the fact that you have that disability. If you’ve incurred that kind of workplace mistreatment by your employer based upon your addiction, you may be able to launch a successful discrimination lawsuit and recover substantial compensation. Reach out to the experienced New Jersey disability discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates to find out more. Our knowledgeable attorneys have spent many years dedicated to helping workers and helping to stamp out the ills of discrimination. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.

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