An employee who was allegedly fired for refusing to admit he had a substance abuse problem presented sufficient evidence to advance his claim under the “regarded as” prong of the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to a Massachusetts federal court. The employer denied terminating the employee or demanding that he admit having a substance abuse problem.  The Court granted summary judgment on the employee’s Massachusetts anti-discrimination law claim, applying pre-ADA amendment case law, but denied summary judgment on the ADA claim. Izzo v. Genesco, Inc. d/b/a LIDS, Case No. 14-cv-13607-ADB (D. Mass. Mar. 22, 2016).

Plaintiff was hired in 2006 and was promoted several times before becoming manager of the employer’s Braintree, MA. store. During 2012, the Braintree store performed poorly, as evidenced by flagging sales. Plaintiff alleged that during a store visit in August 2012, his supervisor demanded that Plaintiff admit to having a substance abuse problem.  Plaintiff further alleged his supervisor told him he would be terminated if he did not admit to abusing drugs.  When Plaintiff refused to comply with the direction, the supervisor allegedly followed through on the threat and terminated him.

Defendant disputed Plaintiff’s account, and maintained Plaintiff had resigned. Plaintiff’s supervisor testified that he was concerned about Plaintiff and tried to determine if Plaintiff was experiencing personal problems.  The supervisor claimed he reminded Plaintiff about the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that offered treatment programs for drugs and alcohol.  The supervisor also testified that he offered Plaintiff a leave of absence.  According to the supervisor, Plaintiff put down his keys and walked out.  The supervisor’s account was supported by a phone log memorializing a conversation between the supervisor and the Human Resources Department the day of the incident, as well as testimony of another store manager.

Alcoholism is covered under the ADA, regardless of whether the employee is a recovering alcoholic or a current user. However, the same is not true for illegal drug users.  Employees who are “currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs” are not covered under the ADA.  On the other hand, recovering addicts who are not currently engaging in illegal drug use may be covered.  The ADA also protects employees who are not engaging in the illegal use of drugs but are “erroneously regarded” as doing so.

The Court denied Defendant’s motion for summary judgment on Plaintiff’s ADA claim. The Court found Plaintiff satisfied his prima facie case, because there were factual disputes as to whether Plaintiff’s supervisor erroneously perceived him as a current drug user and whether Plaintiff was terminated or resigned.  Defendant argued summary judgment was still appropriate based on Plaintiff’s poor performance.  The Court disagreed, stating, “Though it is undisputed that [Plaintiff’s] work performance was lacking…it is disputed whether this was the reason he was let go.”

This case serves as a reminder that employers must tread carefully when addressing suspected employee substance abuse, as the ADA’s protection in this area is expansive.