By Dave Strausfeld, J.D.
Even though a police chief suffering from alcoholism did not satisfy any of the tests for disability under the ADA, he did qualify as disabled under the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA), which specifically defines alcoholism to be a disability, held a federal district court in Maine. Nonetheless, there was no evidence that his termination was causally connected to his alcoholism, so he could not survive summary judgment. The town said it fired him for hostile off-duty behavior toward two officers who approached his parked vehicle and smelled alcohol, and he was unable to show that the justification that he violated departmental standards of conduct was pretextual (Young v. Town of Bar Harbor
, June 27, 2016, Singal, G.).
Fired after returning from rehab program.
Late one evening in September 2013, two police officers responded to a call about a man who appeared to be slumped over in the driver’s seat of a parked vehicle. It turned out to be the police chief, and when he opened his car door, the officers believed they smelled alcohol. Several months earlier, the chief had self-reported to the town manager that he was an alcoholic, and the town manager had responded by informing him about certain employee assistance plan (EAP) services.
When the town manager learned about the parking-lot incident, he appointed an independent investigator, who concluded that the police chief was intoxicated at the time he interacted with the two officers and was "hostile" towards them. Based on this report, the town manager fired the police chief—only a month or so after the chief had returned from in-patient treatment for alcohol abuse. The chief appealed his termination to the town council, which held a public hearing and voted to affirm the termination decision. Some of the council members allegedly were influenced by rumors about matters in the police chief’s personal life.
Not disabled under ADA.
The police chief’s ADA claim could not overcome the hurdle of establishing he had a disability, the court found. He failed to identify any major life activity that was substantially limited by his alcoholism, and although he argued he would not have enrolled in an in-patient rehab program if his condition were not substantially limiting, he was "incorrect to assume that enrollment in an alcohol abuse treatment program, alone, provides implicit evidence that major life activities have been impaired." And he put forth no evidence that any life activity was substantially impaired, so he could not meet the test for actual disability.
The police chief also argued that he was "regarded as" disabled, but the court likewise was not convinced. There was no evidence in the record that the town manager or the town council members perceived him as an alcoholic who was physically or mentally impaired as a result, the court found. He also failed to show a record of disability, so he was unable to establish that he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA.
But disabled under Maine Human Rights Act.
The situation was different under Maine law, because the MHRA expressly defines alcoholism—without regard to severity—as a disability. In other respects, the MHRA is generally interpreted in a manner similar to the ADA.
Unable to show reason for firing pretextual.
Even assuming the police chief could establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination, he could not show that the justification offered by the town for firing him was pretextual, the court found. In attempting to show that the parking-lot incident was used as a pretext, the police chief made "great efforts" to document that town council members had expressed concerns about him prior to the incident. But it was not enough, the court explained, to show that some council members held animus toward him before the incident, because the ADA "does not protect a disabled person from adverse employment actions based on animus, but rather from ‘discriminatory animus,’" and it "is this connection that is missing in the record and in Plaintiff’s argument."
Further, even if the independent investigator’s report was in fact incorrect, the town council acted with an honest belief that he engaged in misconduct, or at least he had not shown otherwise.
Same standards apply to alcoholic employees.
And even if the police chief’s behavior in the parking lot was influenced by his consumption of alcohol, the court pointed out, this did not allow him to move forward with his claim, because an employee who is an alcoholic may be held to the same standards to which other employees are held, even if any unsatisfactory performance or behavior is related to the employee’s alcoholism.