Employment-Seventh Circuit Rules That Alcoholism By Itself Did Not Entitle An Employee to FMLA or ADA Protection

In Ames v. Home Depot Incorporated, No. 09-4151 (7th Circuit 2011), the plaintiff was terminated for coming to work under the influence of alcohol and failing a blood alcohol test. She sued her employer for violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (the “FMLA”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”). The district court granted summary judgment against the plaintiff and she appealed. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court noted that, under the FMLA, an eligible employee is entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for a “serious health condition” that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of her job. Here, the plaintiff did not establish that she is afflicted with a serious health condition. The Court said that substance abuse (including alcoholism) can qualify as a serious health condition, if treatment for substance abuse involves inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider. The plaintiff did not show that she was receiving such care or treatment. Therefore, the Court ruled that the plaintiff does not have protection under the FMLA.

The Court continued by stating that, to establish a claim under the ADA, the plaintiff had to show that she has a disability within the meaning of the ADA. Alcoholism may qualify as a disability if it substantially limits one or more major life activities. A “substantial limitation” is one that renders an individual unable to perform, or significantly restricts an individual in performing, a major life activity. Major life activities can include caring for oneself, sleeping, walking, and working. Here, the plaintiff did not show that her alcoholism substantially limited any major life activity. Therefore, the Court ruled that the plaintiff does not have a disability, within the meaning of the ADA, and her ADA claim fails.