Recent Court Decision is Instructive as to the Circumstances Under Which Alcoholism Constitutes a “Disability” Under the Anti-Discrimination Statutes

In Cullen v. Verizon Communications, No. 14-CV-464S, 2014 WL 6627494 (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 21, 2014), the Western District of New York dismissed, under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), plaintiff’s complaint alleging disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (as amended) (ADA) and the New York State Human Rights Law.

Here are the facts, as summarized by the court:

Plaintiff suffers from alcoholism. Defendant became aware of Plaintiff’s alcoholism when Plaintiff lost his driver’s license. From August 2012 through January 31, 2013, Defendant accommodated Plaintiff by not requiring that he perform “on the road” duties. Defendant terminated Plaintiff’s employment on January 31, 2013.

Plaintiff asserted that defendant “unlawfully ceased accommodating his disability, and unlawfully terminated him because of his disability.” The court explainied that under either theory, plaintiff was required to sufficiently allege that he is “disabled” within the meaning of the ADA.

As to that requirement:

Under the ADA, the term “disability” means “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment ….“ 42 U.S .C. § 12102(1). Alcohol addiction is recognized as an “impairment” under the ADA. … But, it is not a per se disability, and a plaintiff must show not only that he was addicted to alcohol, but that the addiction substantially limits one or more major life activities. “[M]ajor life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2). (Emphasis added.)

Unfortunately, this is where plaintiff’s claim failed. Applying the law, the court held:

[Plaintiff’s] Complaint does not plead any facts indicating that Plaintiff’s alleged alcoholism limited one or more of his major life activities. Thus, he has not plausibly pleaded that [he] is disabled within the meaning of the ADA. … Plaintiff’s allegations do not plausibly suggest the existence of a disability, and dismissal of his ADA discrimination claims is warranted.

In light of this determination, the court found it unnecessary to address whether plaintiff sufficiently alleged a failure to accommodate a disability or whether Verizon terminated him because of a disability. It did, however, give plaintiff an opportunity to amend and re-plead his claims.

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