January 1994

Workplace Labor Update - Alcoholism – January 1994

2 min

The federal appellate court with jurisdiction over Maryland, Virginia and other mid-Atlantic states recently ruled that the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") did not violate the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ("Rehab. Act") when it terminated an alcoholic employee. The Fourth Circuit affirmed a trial court's decision that the employee was fired for misconduct, not because he was an alcoholic. Little v. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1 F.3d 255 (4th Cir. 1993).

Little was employed as a special agent with the FBI for seven years prior to his termination in 1991. Although he apparently was an alcoholic throughout his employment, his performance evaluations were always satisfactory. Prior to December of 1989, Little was involved in three separate off-duty alcohol related driving incidents. No action was taken against him by the FBI. On December 19, 1989, Little was again charged with driving while intoxicated during off-hours. He reported this incident to his superiors and requested professional treatment through the FBI's Employee Assistance Program ("EAP"). Less than two weeks after finishing an alcohol abuse program, Little relapsed and became intoxicated while on duty. Following this on-the-job incident, Little entered and completed an inpatient treatment program. Upon his return to work, Little admitted drinking on duty. He was then asked to resign. Little refused and finally, on January 19, 1991, he was terminated because of his "inability to conform to the FBI's established standards that special agents must remain mentally and physically fit for duty at all times."

Little filed suit, claiming, among other things, that he was fired in violation of the Rehab. Act because of his alcoholism. That statute imposes an affirmative duty on federal agencies not to take any adverse action against "otherwise qualified individuals" on account of their handicaps.

In its motion to dismiss Little's claims, the FBI argued that Little's intoxication on the job made him not otherwise qualified for the job. Little was terminated for misconduct, i.e. coming to work drunk, not because of his alcoholism. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed, noting that Little's employment history further buttressed this result. The FBI had been aware of Little's alcoholism for years and made efforts to keep him. It was only at the point when he came to work intoxicated that he was asked to resign. Thus, he was not terminated because of any handicap.