Court ruling highlights when alcoholism is and isn't ADA-protected

A recent ADA lawsuit shows that saying you are disabled and proving it in court are two very different things. 

Discrimination, harassment claims

James Johnson, an addiction counselor assistant at New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS), filed a disability discrimination suit under the ADA against his employer. He claimed that because he was a recovering alcoholic, he was discriminated against and harassed.
Johnson alleges that he was passed over for a promotion, denied a transfer and assigned jobs “nobody wants to do,” because of his disability.
Johnson said he received negative performance evaluations because of his alcoholism, which created a hostile work environment.

Not a disability

The plaintiff’s claim failed for two reasons. The first was that Johnson couldn’t prove a connection between the alleged harassment and his alcoholism. In fact, the plaintiff couldn’t even show that OASAS was aware of his condition.
But the second — and more important — reason Johnson’s claim failed was that he couldn’t prove his alcoholism was considered a disability under the ADA.
To meet the ADA’s definition of a disability, the plaintiff would’ve had to show that:

  • he suffered from a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activity
  • he had a record of such impairment, and
  • the company regarded him as having that impairment.

It wasn’t enough to support his claim that Johnson considered himself a recovering alcoholic.
The court said:

“Although alcoholism is considered an impairment under the ADA … more than a physical or mental impairment is required to satisfy the definition of a disability.”

This case is important for employers because it shows that the bar is set fairly high for an employee to prove that they have a protected disability and that an ADA violation occurred.
Cite: Johnson v. New York State Office of Alcoholism & Substance Abuse Services, Dist. Crt. S.D. NY, No. 16-cv-9769, 3/13/18.

Rachel Mucha
Rachel writes about Human Resource management and has been a member of the HRMorning staff since 2017. She is a graduate of Ithaca College. Email: