A recent Fifth Circuit Court decision explicitly acknowledged that the ADAA (Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008) modifies the definition of disability in the original ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) to include “[a]n impairment that is episodic or in remission…if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.” This modification affects employment law in workplace bias suits, leaves the door open for Texas employment lawyers to protect workers, illustrates the legal consequences of ignoring the need for reasonable accommodations, and ensures the protection of disability rights at work.
The ADAA potentially expands employees’ disability rights at work in significant ways. But there is a lot to unpack in how the law is applied in Texas and throughout the Fifth Circuit. In the case of Mueck v. LaGrange Acquisitions, while the Fifth Circuit acknowledged the modification of the definition of disability, it nonetheless dismissed the plaintiff’s disability discrimination lawsuit against his employer. The employee claimed that he was terminated because of his alcohol use disorder, a condition that the ADA recognizes may be a disability. The Fifth Circuit, agreeing with the employer, found that the plaintiff’s employment was terminated because the employee was required to attend court-ordered treatment sessions during working hours, not because he was an alcoholic.
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Alcohol Use Disorder in Employment
The plaintiff in this case was a self-described alcoholic. By his own account, while employed, he might have one to two drinks in the evening on workdays. His drinking never prevented him from working. However, when off duty, he drank excessively. When binging, he neglected basic elements of self-care, failing to shower, brush his teeth, clean his house, or keep up with any other chores.
Workplace Attendance Issues
Not surprisingly, the plaintiff’s drinking also led to legal consequences, including several citations for Driving Under the Influence and public intoxication. Finally, in 2019, the plaintiff was cited for a third DWI and was ordered to attend weekly substance abuse classes. Some of these classes conflicted with shifts that he was scheduled to work. He independently arranged for a coworker to cover the days on which he needed to leave early from his day shift, but could not find coverage for the night shifts for which he would arrive at work late.
The plaintiff insisted that he told his supervisor that he was an alcoholic, that he wanted to turn his life around, and asked his employer to accommodate his attendance at substance abuse classes. His supervisors disputed these statements. His employment was terminated, and he was told that the decision was based on the conflict between the substance abuse classes and his shift schedule.
Disability Discrimination in Texas
Mueck sued his employer under the ADA for intentional discrimination, failure to provide reasonable accommodation, and retaliation. The District Court for the Western District of Texas dismissed his lawsuit, finding that he had failed to show that his alcoholism was a disability or that he had requested a reasonable accommodation. Mueck appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which affirmed the District Court’s dismissal, although on different grounds.
Federal Workplace Employment Discrimination Laws and Texas Labor Code Chapter 21
This case is the first Fifth Circuit case that explicitly recognizes the expansion of the definition of disability to include conditions that are episodic or temporary in nature. It has, nonetheless, been part of the plain language of the amended law for 15 years. Under the ADA, workplace discrimination may occur when an employee is terminated, suspended, denied training, or a promotion, or anything else that negatively affects the terms and conditions of employment because the worker has a disability or needs a reasonable accommodation. Since 1990, alcohol use disorder has been considered as a condition that may qualify as a disability covered by the ADA, if it affects a major life activity like the basic tasks of self- care. Commentary on the 2008 expansion of the definition of disability to include conditions that are episodic or temporary suggests that this may sweep in conditions like:
- post-traumatic stress disorder,
- cancer that is in remission, or
- other conditions where an individual might experience flare-ups.
Texas Labor Code Chapter 21 also prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants or employees with disabilities in job applications, procedures, conditions, and privileges of employment. This law is generally thought to track the ADA. Mueck, however, does not cite Chapter 21, so the issue of whether Texas state law recognizes the expanded definition of disability remains unresolved.
The Future of Disability Discrimination in Texas
The primary importance of the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Mueck may be its explicit recognition of the expanded definition of disability. But the case also leaves many unanswered questions, particularly because significant issues of fact were disputed from the outset. At trial, the District Court appears to have incorrectly applied pre-1980 precedent in determining whether Mueck had a disability. Its analysis stopped with the determination that he was not disabled. The Fifth Circuit recognized the correct standard, but determined that Mueck had not been discriminated against because he had, in fact, been discharged for workplace attendance issues.
Ordinarily, the question of whether an employer has discriminated against an employee on account of a disability goes through several steps, as described here:
- To qualify as a disability, the condition must affect the worker’s ability to perform a major life activity. These may include things like bathing, eating, sleeping, working, and communicating with others. After 2008, the effects of the disabling condition need not be permanent or constant.
- The worker must also notify the employer that he or she has a disability and ask the employer for an accommodation.
- The employer must then engage the worker in an interactive process to determine whether a reasonable accommodation is possible. This process may permit an employer to ask for medical records, propose alternative accommodations and determine whether the changes would be effective in allowing the worker to perform the fundamental functions of the job.
- An employer need not commit to an accommodation that would cause it undue hardship. Undue hardship is understood to mean causing significant difficulty or expense.
Neither decision reaches questions concerning the adequacy of the interactive process, the reasonability of the requested accommodations or what constitutes significant cost or difficulty on the part of the employer. These are typically the issues on which disability discrimination in employment lawsuits turns.
There are also nagging questions about whether alcohol use disorder is subject to a different level of scrutiny than other disabilities. Many find it particularly surprising that the Fifth Circuit did not address whether the temporary schedule accommodations the employee claimed to have requested were reasonable. But for the disputes at trial about whether he had appropriately disclosed his disability or requested schedule changes, this case might have taken a different turn.
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