Employer Had Duty to Accommodate Employee’s Alcoholism, Human Rights Tribunal Rules

Written on behalf of Peter McSherry
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In a recent Human Rights Tribunal of Alberta decision, the Tribunal ruled that an employer failed to accommodate an employee’s alcoholism and awarded the employee $30,000 in general damages.

Employee Terminated Following Alcohol-Related Incident 

The employee worked for the employer for approximately 14 months as a commission car salesperson at a car dealership. When he started working, the employee advised the employer that he did not have a driver’s license due to an alcohol-related driving offence. 

Approximately seven months into his employment, the employee began drinking heavily on a daily basis and showed up to work drunk every day. 

Towards the end of his employment, the employee became concerned about losing his job. Several other workers warned him that he smelled of alcohol and that the owner of the dealership would not tolerate his drinking. 

The employee realized that he needed help. He spoke to the dealership’s sales manager about whether the employer would hold his job if he needed time away for medical reasons. He was assured that this was possible. During this discussion, the employee did not tell the sales manager about his alcohol dependency, but he did raise the possibility of a medical absence.

The employee subsequently obtained information from the office manager about benefits available to him. He obtained forms for applying for disability benefits and short-term disability leave. The employee initially refused to tell the office manager why he wanted to apply for a leave but then eventually told her that he wanted to seek treatment for alcohol dependency. 

However, before the employee completed his application for disability benefits, an incident occurred that led to his termination. The employee showed up to work late while intoxicated from a combination of alcohol and prescription medication. He interrupted a staff meeting and acted belligerently towards the general manager. Upon noting the employee’s severe intoxication, the general manager phoned the employee’s spouse to pick him up. They had a brief conversation in which she advised the general manager that the employee had a drinking problem and he replied that “everybody knows”. 

Following the incident, the employee was terminated. During his termination meeting with the general manager, the employee stated that he had an alcohol addiction and asked for a chance to attend rehabilitation treatment. The general manager replied that “too many people know about this” and denied the employee’s request to remain on benefits so that he could attend rehabilitation treatment. 

After his termination, the employee applied for benefits coverage for rehabilitation treatment under his employment benefits program. However, the benefits provider rejected his application due to the termination of his benefits that coincided with his termination of employment. The employee could not afford to attend the treatment program on his own. He therefore enrolled in a half-day outpatient program for alcohol abuse and then attended a government subsidized 19-day residential treatment program where he obtained treatment related to both alcohol and prescription medications. 

The employee filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission, alleging that the employer discriminated against him on the grounds of physical disability and mental disability.

Tribunal Rules in Favour of Employee

As in all discrimination cases before it, the Tribunal addressed three issues in turn:

  1. Has the employee proven discrimination?
  2. If so, did the employer accommodate the employee to the point of undue hardship?
  3. If not, what is the appropriate remedy?

In order to prove a prima facie case of discrimination, the employee had to establish: a) that he had a disability; b) that he suffered an adverse impact; and c) that his disability was a factor in the adverse impact.

On the issue of discrimination, the Tribunal first held that the employee had established that he had disability. It found that, looking at the evidence as a whole, the employee had established that he suffered from an alcohol addiction. As such, the Tribunal held the employee suffered from an ongoing disability related to alcohol addiction. 

With regard to any adverse impact, it was undisputed that the employer had terminated the employee and the termination constituted an adverse impact.

The Tribunal then found that the employee’s disability had been a factor in his termination. The employer argued that the employee’s disability was not a factor in the termination because it had no knowledge of the employee’s disability and terminated him solely for misconduct in disrupting the workplace. However, the Tribunal found that the employer knew or ought to have known that the employee’s addiction had contributed to his conduct and that the employer had a duty to inquire before it terminated the employee’s employment. Accordingly, the Tribunal held that the employee’s addiction to alcohol had been a factor in his termination. 

The Tribunal further held that the employer had not accommodated the employee’s disability to the point of undue hardship, stating:

“Here, the [employer] took no steps to consider accommodation whatsoever. It conducted no investigation into alternatives to termination and never considered what its options were in the circumstances. Having not engaged in any accommodation process, it does not have the evidence to show that it could not have accommodated the [employee] to the point of undue hardship. 

In making this finding, I am not saying that the [employer] needed to accept a serious safety risk in its workplace or accept ongoing intoxication simply because the [employee] had a disability. Rather, it needed to investigate options, including the [employee]’s request for a medical leave of absence to seek rehabilitation treatment. It did not do this, and I cannot find that continuing to employ the [employee] would have created an undue hardship for the employer.”

As a result, the Tribunal allowed the complaint and awarded the employee general damages in the amount of $30,000 as well as lost wages and lost short-term disability benefits.

Get Help

If you feel that your rights have been violated, seeking the advice of an experienced and informed employment lawyer can help you understand your rights and your options to remedy the situation. 

I have extensive experience and knowledge in handling cases on behalf of employees in a variety of industries. If you have been the victim of harassment and discrimination, I can help you evaluate your options and pursue the resolution that can best serve your interests and compensate for the pain and damages you have suffered.

At Peter A. McSherry Law Office in Guelph, I have represented clients in all areas of employment since being called to the Ontario Bar in 1997. When you work with me, you will meet and discuss your case only with me. I provide each of my clients with compassionate care, attentive service and the efficient resolution of legal issues. Contact me today to schedule an initial consultation by calling my office at 519-821-5465 or by e-mailing me. Harassment and discrimination cases are not to be taken lightly. Your rights deserve protection, and you deserve to work in a non-hostile work environment.