Seyfarth Synopsis: Employee committed to taking opioids loses his job and his disability discrimination lawsuit because he refused to consider alternative pain management.
The “interactive process” required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended by the ADA Amendments Act, is a two-way street between an employee and his or her employer. Consistent with this mutual obligation, a federal court in Ohio recently dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former employee who refused to consider alternative pain management for his degenerative disc disease and arthritis in his neck and back.
In Sloan v. Repacorp, Inc., No. 3:16-cv-00161 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 27, 2018), the plaintiff worked as a production manager for Repacorp, which manufactures and prints labels using heavy machinery. While Sloan’s job required him to spend only a small portion of his time working on heavy machinery, he always worked around this equipment and his working environment was extremely dangerous. As a safety precaution, Repacorp maintained a policy requiring employees to notify management if they were taking nonprescription or prescription medication.
A year before his termination, Sloan began taking morphine and Vicodin while at work. Occasionally, he took the morphine in a manner inconsistent with his prescription and he did not have a prescription for Vicodin. He secured the Vicodin from his mother and a co-worker. Sloan did not inform his supervisor, or anyone else at Repacorp, that he was taking these medications. After several months of using these opioids at work, an employee reported to management that Sloan was obtaining Vicodin from his colleague. He was immediately removed from the manufacturing floor and required to submit to a drug test.
When he tested positive for hydrocodone (an in Vicodin), Repacorp placed Sloan on leave and referred him to its Employee Assistance Program. While on leave, Sloan disclosed his morphine prescription. Fearing a “huge liability,” Repacorp asked if there were alternative, non-opioid treatments for his pain condition that would not put the company and Sloan at risk. Although Sloan tried, he was unable to reach his physician to make this inquiry. He then told the company president, without having consulted his doctor, that he needed to “stay on [his] medication” and that he “wouldn’t stop taking it.” The company president believed Sloan “chose drugs over his job.” Because Repacorp did not have any positions that would permit an employee to safely use opioids in the workplace, Repacorp terminated Sloan’s employment following this conversation.
Sloan subsequently filed a lawsuit against Repacorp, alleging disability discrimination under Ohio law and the ADA. He claimed that Repacorp failed to accommodate his disabilities by refusing to grant his request to use prescription morphine. Sloan argued that he could have safely performed his job while taking the medication, and that his employer should have conducted a “direct threat” analysis before denying his request. The Court disagreed, finding that Sloan impeded Repacorp’s ability to investigate the extent of his disability and the breadth of potential accommodations that it might have reasonably afforded to him by refusing to cooperate with the company’s request for additional information. Without this information, Repacorp could not determine whether Sloan was a qualified individual able to do his job either with or without a reasonable accommodation. Accordingly, the Court granted Repacorp’s Motion for Summary Judgement and dismissed Sloan’s case.
Employer Take Away
An employer should conduct an individualized assessment to determine whether it can accommodate an employee’s disability. Had Repacorp simply terminated Sloan for violating its policy against taking medications at work, the Court likely would have decided this case differently. Thus, it serves as a good reminder for employers to always document their attempts to engage in the interactive process. If an employee is terminated after refusing to engage with his or her employer, the employer will have a strong defense to any subsequent disability discrimination claim.