July 1999

Workplace Labor Update - Alcohol Abuse Not Covered by FMLA – July 1999

3 min

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does not protect alcoholic employees from adverse employment actions based on misconduct arising from alcohol abuse. In a recent decision, the federal court of appeals for Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas distinguished between FMLA coverage for alcoholic employees on the basis of their medical conditions and the lack of coverage for alcoholic employees who engage in misconduct. Sloop v. ABTCO Inc., 1999 WL 280281 (4th Cir. May 6, 1999).

Sloop was a factory worker who claimed that his employer violated the FMLA by terminating him when he was involuntarily committed to a detoxification center. Sloop, an admitted alcoholic, had battled the condition his entire life, and avoided drinking for 22 years. Following a demotion, he resumed drinking. Shortly thereafter, the employer granted Sloop three weeks of paid leave to attend an in-patient substance abuse treatment facility. Following this treatment, he experienced several relapses and entered a local detoxification center on six occasions during the course of the next 18 months. Due to this treatment, Sloop missed 16 work days and was warned that he would be terminated if the problem persisted.

During one of his bouts with alcohol, Sloop became abusive to his wife and, following police intervention, was involuntarily committed to a detoxification center. He was scheduled to work the following day on a 7:00 a.m. shift. Sloop's wife contacted the employer, indicating that her husband would be absent from work so that he could undergo treatment and requesting that he be permitted to use his leave and/or accrued vacation time. In response, the company terminated Sloop.

Sloop claimed that his discharge violated the FMLA because he was suffering from a serious medical condition requiring continuing treatment at the detoxification facility. The employer, however, maintained that Sloop had been absent from work due to his excessive use of alcohol, which required him to be involuntarily committed to a detoxification center.

In reviewing the worker's claim, the Court turned to the FMLA's statutory language on substance abuse. The statute provides that “[s]ubstance abuse may be a serious health condition . . . However, FMLA leave may only be taken for treatment of substance abuse by a health care provider or by a provider of health care services on referral by a health care provider. On the other hand, absence because of the employee's use of the substance, rather than for treatment, does not qualify for FMLA leave.” 29 C.F.R. &#sect; 825.114(d).

Because the employee was involuntarily committed to a detoxification center, the Court held that he was absent from work due to his alcohol abuse, not to undergo treatment.