Is Alcoholism a “Serious Health Condition?”

By Craig M. Brooks

A tax filing deadline is enough to drive some to drink as they lament the lack of common sense in governmental actions. Just to show that all hope is not lost, we point to a recent instance where our government’s courts made sense out of a drinking case. With some notable exceptions, courts are becoming increasingly understanding of the realities of management and are working toward creating a level playing field.

Recently, a federal appeals court applied a common sense approach to the generally very expansive definition of "serious health conditions," which entitle employees to protection from discipline under the Family and Medical Leave Act. In this case, the Court declined protection from discipline for an employee’s absence due to alcoholism until, and unless, the employee actually entered an addiction treatment program. The employee claimed that protection should have started from the moment he made a phone call to get an appointment for an evaluation for addiction rehabilitation. The appeals court, however, granted him protection only from the time he was actually unable to attend work due to his participation in the treatment program and not for his prior incapacity which was caused by the addiction itself. Darst v. Interstate Brands Corp., 512 F.3d 903 (7th Cir. 2008).

An underlying message from this case, as well as many other cases, is that the courts will usually side with employers who act reasonably and exercise good judgment. A little bit of advice on how good judgment can best fit in with the legal restrictions on employers will usually allow employers to achieve their goals and avoid employees getting away with something undeserved. It is important to note that our tax dollars are producing some reasonable decisions for those informed about the legal issues. Please contact Craig M. Brooks if you have any questions.