When Painkiller Addiction is a Disability

from the October 2012 LEL Labor and Employment Law News

A recent case from Utah tackles some particularly knotty challenges in applying the recently amended Americans with Disabilities Act. A mailroom supervisor became addicted to painkillers after injuring his back. After rehabilitation for his addiction, he continued to take medicine prescribed to relieve his physical pain, along with an opiate-blocking drug. After being required to take a drug test, the plaintiff employee was fired for testing positive for drugs. He then sued his employer for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. At trial, the jury found that the plaintiff proved that his drug addiction was a disability and also found the he was qualified to perform his job. Fowler v. Westminster College, Case No.2:09-cv-00591 (D. Utah, Sept. 17, 2012).

To prove that he was discharged in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the plaintiff had to prove that he was disabled, that he was qualified to perform the essential functions of his job, and that his employer had discriminated against him by terminating him because of his disability. The court held that, to prevail, the employee had to prove (1) that he was “disabled” as defined by the ADA; (2) he could perform the essential functions of his job; and (3) he was discriminated against because of his disability. In this case, the employee also had to persuade the court that he was not using drugs illegally.

Deciding whether an employee is protected by the ADA requires jumping through more than the usual number of hoops. This is not a complaint – but just an observation. The number of hoops reflects the complex array of disabilities matched with the number of ways to address work and disability. The ADA defines disability as (A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities . . .; (B) a record of such impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment. Each of these types of disabilities elicits unique types of discrimination and remedies.

In this case, the employee’s disability included an addiction to opiates that was caused by the need to take painkillers to relieve the pain from a back injury that might itself be a disability. Addiction to painkillers could be a criminal activity, and one that is stigmatized, but in this case, it is a disability and entitles the employee to accommodations. Put another way, the plaintiff here could be disabled under (A) because of his severe back pain, or he could be disabled under (C) because he is regarded as an addict.

To demonstrate that his addiction ss a disability, the plaintiff next had to prove that he was substantially limited in one or more of his major life activities and then to show that he is a "qualified individual with a disability". That means that he must show that he is qualified to work because he can perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodation. As a drug addict, the employee also had to show that he was not engaging in the illegal use of drugs. Using illegal drugs would mean that he is not a "qualified individual with a disability".

The employer required the plaintiff to take a drug test, and the drug test showed that he was using drugs that are often abused by addicts. However, in this case, the plaintiff was not illegally using these drugs. Rather, his drug use was under the care of a doctor, and the drugs were prescribed by his doctor.

The case describes various sorts of harassment that eventually led to the plaintiff’s discharge.  The judge concluded that the evidence showed that the employee’s “termination was discriminatory and that the drug test was a faulty pretext for discrimination.”