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► Alcoholic Employee Must Meet Performance Standards

A recent federal court decision notes that disabled employees or employees with substance abuse problems must comply with an employer’s policies and meet reasonable performance standards.

Stephen Drizos, a long-term employee and financial advisor for PNC Investments, suffered from alcoholism. Some years after he began his employment, his alcoholism started to impact his attendance at work. He took one month of intermittent Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave; however, shortly after he returned full-time, his attendance problems resurfaced.

The warnings

Drizos’s supervisor issued a verbal warning after he missed several important meetings and advised him to: (1) improve his attendance; and (2) maintain a regular, in-person presence at work. Drizos, however, continued to struggle with his sobriety. He took a subsequent, three-month leave of absence covered by some combination of short-term disability, long-term disability, and FMLA leave. He didn’t work during his full-time leave of absence and relied on others to help manage his portfolio of accounts.

When Drizos returned to work, a large portion of his accounts had become delinquent during his absence. Although he didn’t ask for help in updating his accounts, his supervisor gave him multiple extensions to bring his accounts current. Over the next 11 months, he continued to struggle with his sobriety and committed multiple violations of the company’s attendance policy. He was fired after he violated his employer’s “final warning” about a year after he returned from his second leave of absence.

Drizos subsequently filed suit against PNC Investments for wrongful termination, claiming disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the FMLA. The court denied his claims and ruled in favor of PNC Investments.

Justified termination

In this case, PNC Investment’s termination decision was justified based upon Drizos’s final written warning, which he received after repeated violations of the call-out procedure.

Drizos failed to point to any facts to dispute that he violated his final written warning by not complying with the employer’s call-out procedure. So, the court determined that the employer provided a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its adverse action, and the burden shifted to Drizos to show that reason was pretextual.

Drizos’s attempts to show pretext failed. The court explained: "Even if [Drizos’s] failure to call out was justified, this is immaterial because an employer does not have to be factually correct in the reasons it gives for firing an employee; it simply must be nondiscriminatory . . . To the extent [Drizos] argues that [his employer’s] reliance on minor infractions of the call-out procedure proves pretext, he is wrong because an employer's decision to fire someone does not need to be a good or even reasonable business decision; it simply cannot be because [Drizos] was disabled." Drizos v. PNC Investments, LLC, Case No. 22-1736 (3rd Cir. 8/3/23).

Employer takeaway

Harsh as it may seem, the law doesn’t obligate employers to excuse a disabled employee’s violation of company policy or performance standards. Even if the violations are attributable to an employee’s disability, these violations can be nondiscriminatory if they’re rooted in a legitimate, business-related reason.

By McKenzie Ryan. Ms. Ryan is an attorney in the Tulsa, OK, office of McAfee & Taft.


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