July 1994

Workplace Labor Update - Drug User – July 1994

2 min

The Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") generally prohibits employment discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Under the ADA, a person is disabled, and thus protected, if he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits that person in some major life activity, or has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.

Applying these provisions, a federal judge in Pennsylvania recently decided that an employee who was discharged because her employer "perceived" her to be an alcoholic or substance abuser may have a viable claim against her employer under the ADA. Ackridge v. Philadelphia Department of Human Services, 1994 W.L. 184421 (E.D. Pa. 1994).

Florence Ackridge filed an employment discrimination suit against her employer, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, alleging that it discriminated against her because of a "perception that she was an alcoholic and/or substance abuser" in violation of the ADA. Ackridge asked the court to appoint a lawyer for her, claiming she did not have enough money to retain one. In analyzing her request for court-appointed counsel, the court considered whether her claim has "arguable merit in law and fact." The court determined that Ackridge's claim had merit, reasoning that since the ADA's definition of disability includes "being regarded as having such an impairment" an employee can be covered by the ADA, whether or not she was actually disabled, if she was subject to discrimination based on the perception of a disability.

Although a person currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs is excluded from the definition of a qualified individual with a disability, the court explained, that coverage is extended to an employee who is erroneously regarded as engaging in such use. The court concluded that if Ackridge was not, in fact, using illegal drugs, but was perceived as doing so by her employer, or was perceived as suffering from alcoholism, her allegations may rise to a cause of action under the ADA.

This case dramatically underscores how little known provisions of the ADA can affect unwary employers. Since the ADA allows for compensatory and punitive damages in certain cases, employers are well advised to consult competent labor counsel before making employment decisions that might involve an employee's medical condition -- even if the employer does not view the employee as being disabled.