Alcoholic in Recovery May Proceed With Disability Claim

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By Jon Steingart

June 24 — A mechanic helper for the public transit system in Washington, D.C., who was fired for a positive alcohol test may proceed to trial with his disability bias claim based on the agency's refusal to rehire him after he completed rehab, a federal appeals court has ruled ( Alexander v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth. , 2016 BL 202763, D.C. Cir., No. 15-7039, 6/24/16 ).

The decision is a reminder that there are different ways someone claiming discrimination can establish protection under federal disability bias law. The rules are different if the claim is based on the employer's belief that the worker has or had an impairment than if it's based on an actual impairment.

A lower court said Carlos Alexander couldn't establish “that his alcohol dependency substantially limits at least one of his major life activities,” which is required to show an actual impairment, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit wrote June 24.

The lower court failed to consider that Alexander's claim can proceed if he shows the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority took a prohibited action because it regarded him as having an impairment, the court said. Showing that the impairment affects life activities is unnecessary for a “regarded as” claim, the court said, reversing summary judgment for the transit agency.

Law Calls for ‘Broad Scope,' Court Says

After Alexander tested positive for alcohol, he was referred to the agency's employee assistance program, the court said. He was terminated after he was again found with alcohol in his system.

The agency told Alexander he could apply to be rehired after one year if he completed a rehabilitation program, he said. When he reapplied, he was told he was ineligible for rehire because had been unsuccessful in the employee assistance program.

The lower court also erred by applying “too strict a definition of the ‘substantially limits' showing needed,” the D.C. Circuit said. The ADA Amendments Act calls for “ ‘a broad scope of protection' for individuals under the ADA (and consequently, the Rehabilitation Act),” the court said. The Rehabilitation Act incorporates the ADA's standards.

Alexander's attorney was traveling with no way to be reached for comment, her assistant told Bloomberg BNA. A WMATA spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA June 24 the agency typically doesn't comment on pending litigation.

Rucker & Associates P.C. represented Alexander. In-house counsel represented WMATA.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Steingart in Washington at jsteingart@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

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