Addictions under the Americans with Disabilities Act

October 6, 2021


Addictions under the Americans with Disabilities Act

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  • Introduction 

The mischief behind the provisions of the Disabilities Act (ADA) is to eliminate discrimination in the workplace. In this regard, for a claim premised on Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to stand, a claimant ought to demonstrate the fact of having a disability (Perritt, 2002). The ADA’s definition of disability extends to physical and mental disability that substantially limits a persons’ major life activities; past record of physical and mental disability, regardless of its effect; or an existing perception of physical and mental disability (Goren, 2010). 

This paper shall carefully examine the question as to whether addictions can be classified as disabilities within the purview of ADA. In making this determination, the paper shall place heavy reliance on peer-reviewed articles as well as case laws on the issue. 

  • Analysis of Peer-reviewed articles 
  • Westreich, L. (2002). Addiction and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 30 (3).

In his article, Lawrence Westreich makes a case for the ADA protection of persons suffering addiction (Westreich, 2002). He argues that the framers of the ADA intended it to have a broad scope so as to eliminate all forms of discrimination against persons with disabilities. While lamenting the lack of a universally accepted definition of addiction, the author states that it is because of lack of such a definition that addicted persons are not afforded full protection as contemplated under the ADA.

On the one hand, the author makes an argument that ADA’s scope is sufficient to cover addiction to the use of alcohol but not illegal drugs. The distinction between the two addictions, as the author argues, is that the use of illegal drugs poses a greater threat to members of the society than to alcohol use. Persons addicted to the use of illegal drugs could only be protected in very limited circumstances, including if they are in treatment for the addiction or have completed such treatment and no longer using the illegal drugs. Accordingly, where an addiction amounts to a disability, an employer is duty bound to provide reasonable accommodations for the affected employee, in terms of the hiring process, the working environment and financial benefits at work. 

On the other hand, the author argues that even though the ADA intended to cover alcohol and drug addicts, evidence shows that many such individuals are excluded from the practical application of the ADA, mainly because of grounds set out in the ADA itself. 

  • Hill, S. (2007). The ADA’s failure to protect drug addicted employees who want to seek help and rehabilitation. University of Pennsylvania Journal of Labor and Employment Law,9 (4).

The author begins by stating the prevalence of drug use and addiction in the USA and points out the fact that, in most instances, drug addiction is untreated (Hill, 2007). She argues that the legal framework on addiction in the workplace, mainly comprised of the ADA, offers very limited protections to addicted employees. She further avers that the ADA is narrowly tailored to exclude employees who are still using illegal drugs and only offers protection to limited numbers of addicted employees. 

Regarding the ADA’s purport to protect addicted employee on condition that they enroll for treatment and rehabilitation, the author expresses the view that such a requirement is extremely unreasonable and unreasonable because in most cases, employees may not have the time to enroll for such programs.   

In her conclusion, the author states that although the ADA’s intentions are laudable, there is need to broaden its scope, in view of realities in relation to drug use and the fact that addictions affect all classes of people and not just the uneducated and the low socio-economic community. She proposes for the amendment of the ADA to recognize that some addicted or at high-risk of drug use are not sufficiently protected under the Act. Those include addicted employees who, despite the intention to seek treatment for their drug addiction, would be forced to forfeit their current employment, contrary to their wishes. 

  •  Timmons, K. (2005). Accommodating misconduct under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Florida Law Review, 57.

The main argument posited by Kelly Timmons in her article is that although protections enshrined in the ADA are only available to certain persons who suffer disabilities, the implementation of the ADA in certain cases, including addiction, is hard because the disability in those cases is manifested in the form of misconduct (Timmons, 2005).

The author asserts that competing interests exist in such cases, being that employers are under the obligation to ensure that they do not thwart the noble intentions of the ADA in dismissing employees whose disability leads to misconduct while, on the other hand, employers have an interest in disciplining their employees. She relies on a number of authorities to buttress the position that where an employee engages in acts of misconduct, the employer’s duties under the ADA are discharged, thereby rendering the employee unprotected. 

While admitting that addiction amounts to an impairment within the meaning of the ADA as it could limit life activities in a substantial manner, the protections afforded to addicted employees are often diminished by the powers of employers to dismiss those employees, especially if the conduct of the employees threatens other persons or otherwise amounts to misconduct. 

The author concludes by decrying the common approach among courts that severely limit the ADA rights of addicted employees, noting that such an approach offends the letter and spirit of the ADA. She urges Court’s to apply a broader approach in determining and interpreting the reasonable accommodation duties placed upon employers by the ADA. 

  • Lee, B. (1993). Reasonable Accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act: The Limitations of Rehabilitation Act Precedent. Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law,14(2).

According to the author, Barbra Lee, the ADA’s provisions are quite significant in relation to employment relations (Lee, 1993).  However, there exists a lacuna as to the scope of the reasonable accommodation obligations created under the ADA. Analyzing various decided cases, the author states that employers may discharge their errant employees if the ground for dismissal is the error or misconduct itself and not the fact of the disability created by the employee’s addiction to alcohol or other drugs. 

The author further discusses the affirmative obligations of employers in dealing with employees who have acquired a disability as a result of alcoholism and or drug use, contending that these obligations are subjective and will usually vary from one situation to another. She notes that under the ADA, employees may adopt drug testing policies and to subject rehabilitated employees through drug tests, with a view to establishing the appropriate treatment to be afforded to them.  

  • Analysis of relevant case law
  • Marrari v. WCI Steel, Inc.

In the Marrari case, the claimant, William Marrari sued the defendant, WCI Steel Inc., his former employer. The claimant’s contention was that the defendant terminated his employment contract in an un-procedural manner and in blatant violation of the ADA after finding that a urine sample taken from the claimant was positive for alcohol. 

At the heart of the dispute was a “last-chance” agreement entered between the parties by which the claimant had undertaken to never be drunk during working hours and allowed the defendant to terminate the employment contract in case the claimant was found to have alcohol in his blood. The issue before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was whether the defendant had acted contrary to the ADA by treating the claimant differently and if so, whether the defendant had the right to treat the claimant in such a manner, by virtue of the “last chance agreement”.

The Court held that indeed, the defendant violated the dictates of the ADA by treating the claimant in a manner different from other employees on the basis of drunkenness and addiction. However, the Court found the defendant’s acts to be justifiable under the “last chance” agreement and as such, valid. Therefore, the only reason why the Court found in favor of the defendant was the existence of the Agreement and not because of the claimant’s failure to satisfy the requisite elements under the ADA.

The Marrari is very significant in ADA litigation as it confirms that alcoholism amounts to a disability. However, the Court’s decision creates ambiguity as to the supremacy of the ADA, compared with agreements between employees and their employers. 

  • Schmidt v. Safeway, Inc.

The claimant, Stanley Schmidt, was a truck driver employed by the defendant. He was fired by the defendant because he had a persistent apparent alcohol problem despite the fact that he had not been found drunk or drinking during working hours. Consequently, the claimant filed a suit seeking a declaration that the defendant had violated the ADA in the manner in which it dismissed him from employment. He claimed that the defendant failed to afford him reasonable accommodation under the ADA and treated him in an unfair manner. 

The Court, while finding in favour of the claimant, expressed the view that the defendant ought to have given reasonable accommodation to the claimant by giving him a leave of absence to obtain medical treatment since there was evidence on record to demonstrate that such medical treatment would have helped the claimant in performing his future duties as a driver. 

The decision is very important in affirming the rights and entitlements of employees under ADA. It also broadens the interpretation of ADA, as it should be, to accommodate cases of addiction to alcohol and drugs. It sets the ground for future litigation based on addiction, where it can be proven that the use of alcohol affects the ability of an employee and where the employer has failed to make reasonable accommodations. The decision, however, did not clarify what the proper balance should be in weighing an employer’s right to terminate a non-performing employee, as compared with the duties of the employer to provide reasonable accommodations. 


  • Collings v. Longview Fibre Co. 

In this case, the claimants, who were manual laborers of the defendant, sued to challenge their dismissal by the defendant, which was based drug use contrary to the rules enacted by the defendant. Their main assertion was that their drug addiction was enough to guarantee them protection under the ADA. It emerged that as at the time the claimants’ employment was terminated, the claimants in fact used hard drugs. The issue, therefore, became whether the defendant violated the ADA by dismissing the claimants.

The court in rejecting the claim held that although the claimants were disabled by reason of drug use, they did not qualify for the protections entrenched in the ADA because their actions offended the Drug-free Workplace Act of 1988 and because the ADA does not protect persons who are currently using illicit drugs. The Court made the following observations, which are quite instructive, thus:

“[t]he term ‘currently engaging’ is not intended to be limited to on the day of, or within a matter of days or weeks before, the employment action in question …. Therefore, the fact that the employees may have been drug-free on the day of their discharge is not dispositive. Their own admissions of drug involvement in the weeks and months prior to their discharge indicated that they were recently involved in drug-related misconduct.” [Emphasis supplied]

It would emerge from the Collings case that the mere fact of disability as a result of addiction does not, in itself, guarantee protections under the ADA. It must be considered in view of other statutes as well as the context and circumstances in question. 


  1. Shafer vPreston Memorial Hospital 

The Plaintiff, Deborah Shafer, was employed by the defendant hospital as a nurse. In the course of her employment, it emerged that she was using and was addicted to the use of Fentanyl, an illegal drug. Subsequently, the defendant placed the claimant on a leave of absence and assisted her to join a rehabilitation centre. However, the defendant later terminated the claimant’s employment, which triggered her filing of the suit. The central issue before the Court of Appeal was whether the defendant violated the provisions of the ADA by terminating the claimant’s employment after she had joined a rehabilitation centre. 

The Court held that the defendant had acted within the ADA as the claimant’s actions fell outside the purview of the ADA and as such, whether or not the claimant had entered rehabilitation centre was of no legal question. Accordingly, the defendant did not violate the ADA as alleged. 

The Court’s decision in Shafer, although legally sound, exemplifies the very problem identified and Samantha Hill in her erudite article, The ADA’s failure to protect drug addicted employees who want to seek help and rehabilitation (Hill, 2007). This is because it shows the restrictiveness of the ADA, which locks out certain employees who have shown willingness to rehabilitate themselves. 

  • Conclusion 

From the foregoing analysis, there is no doubt that addiction amounts to a disability under the ADA provided that it affects the activities or abilities of an employee in a substantial manner. The paper, however, has however identified that the scope of the ADA in this regard is quite restrictive, tending to only benefit only those addicted to alcohol use.


Collings v. Longview Fibre Co. 63 F.3d 828 (9th Cir. 1995).

Goren, W. D. (2010). Understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act. Chicago, IL: ABA, General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division.

Hill, S. (2007). The ADA’s failure to protect drug addicted employees who want to seek help and rehabilitation. University of Pennsylvania Journal of Labor and Employment Law,9(4).

Lee, B. (1993). Reasonable Accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act: The Limitations of Rehabilitation Act Precedent. Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law,14(2).

Marrari v. WCI Steel, Inc., 130 F.3d 1180 (6th Cir. 1997).

Perritt, H. H. (2002). Americans With Disabilities Act handbook: Volumes 1-3, 2002-1 cumulative supplement. New York: Aspen.

Schmidt v. Safeway, Inc., 864 F. Supp. 991 (D. Or. 1994). 

Shafer vPreston Memorial Hospital (CA4 1997) 107 F.3d 274.

Timmons, K. (2005). Accommodating misconduct under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Florida Law Review,57.

Westreich, L. (2002). Addiction and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law,30(3).

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