Walking a Straight (and Fine) Line: Alcoholism and the Americans with Disabilities Act

AuthorDouglas Massengill
Date01 September 2005
Published date01 September 2005
Subject MatterArticle
Walking a Straight
(and Fine) Line:
Alcoholism and the Americans
With Disabilities Act
Douglas Masse ngill
This paper examines case law re garding alcohol ism as a dis ability under the
Ameri cans wi th Disa bilities Act (ADA). C ourts have us ed vary ing sta ndards in
decid ing wh ether al coholism should be c onsidere d a di sability within the
meani ng of the te rm in the AD A. Thes e have ranged from acceptin g alcoh olism
as a disab ility pe r se to req uiring extensiv e evide nce tha t a p erson’s alcohol
abuse places a su bstantia l limit ation o n a ma jor li fe acti vity. Req uired accom-
modat ions f or alco holics h ave bee n mini mal, mo stly th e allo wance of time off
for rehabil itation. Employe rs hav e been permitte d to hold al coholics to t he
same standar ds of performa nce and behav ior as non-alc oholics.
Notwithstanding the neg ative connotation asso ciated with alcoholism and
alcohol abuse, certain protections are afforded in the workplace by the Amer-
icans With Disabiliti es Act (ADA). This paper will explore the extent of those
protections and describe some of the issues sur rounding them. An exhaustive re view
of al l cour t decisio ns involving alcoholism and the ADA is beyond the scope of this
p a p e r. Instead it will examine a sample of Circuit Court of Appeals cases in order to
extract some underlying principles.
The rationale for limiting the review to appellate decisions is based on the
greater importance they carry in establishing precedence and creating principles to
provide guidance for subsequence judicial decisio ns as well as providing direction for
employers’ actions. While it would have been possible to include more individual
cases in the re view, it was felt that doing so would create considerable redundancy in
the principles illustrated. Theref ore, cases were chosen based on the “richness” of the
legal reasoning underlying the decisio ns.
Alcoholism Within the ADA Definition of Disability?
Of critical importance is the question of whether alcoholism is a disability within t he
meaning of the ADA. Title 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2) provides as follows:
The term “disability” means, with respect to an individual:
a . a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the
major life activities of such individual;
2 8 3Public Personnel Management Volume 34 No. 3 Fall 2005

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