Alcohol and snowplows do not mix. And a public employee who drives a City snowplow while intoxicated is not protected by the employment discrimination laws. That was the unsurprising holding of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit yesterday in a case brought by a former City of Lakewood, Ohio employee.
Jonathan Blazek worked in maintenance for the City of Lakewood. Part of his job entailed driving City vehicles for things such as leaf pick-up and snow removal. In March 2012, he drank an entire bottle of whiskey during his lunch break. He was caught, and the City held a disciplinary hearing. At the hearing, Blazek admitted drinking on the job before. Worse yet, he admitted that “on a handful of occasions” he had driven City vehicles while drinking. In particular, he admitted “driving a snowplow under the influence during a snow storm.” Of course, Lakewood fired Blazek.
Blazek responded by filing a disability discrimination lawsuit against the City in Cleveland federal court. Among other things, he claimed the City fired him because of his disability, alcoholism. The District Court granted Lakewood summary judgment on his claims. Yesterday, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
Before addressing the Court’s decision, let’s cover a little background on the employment laws as they relate to disability and alcoholism. It is true that alcoholism is a disability under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. However, the ADA does not give alcoholic employees a free pass to drink on the job. Instead, it explicitly allows employers to prohibit the use of alcohol at the workplace, and to require employees not be under the influence of alcohol at work. 42 U.S.C. § 12114(c). It also allows employers to hold alcoholic employees to “the same qualification standards for employment or job performance and behavior that such entity holds other employees, even if any unsatisfactory performance or behavior is related to the drug use or alcoholism of such employee.” Id. at § 12114(c)(4) (emphasis added).
The Court of Appeals did not take long in rejecting Blazek’s claim. It held there was insufficient evidence Lakewood fired him because of a disability, as opposed his violation of an obvious workplace rule against drinking alcohol at work. While other employees with substance abuse issues had not always been fired, there was apparently no evidence that any of them had engaged in misconduct as equally serious and repeated as Blazek.
To be honest, after reading the decision, as a Cleveland employment lawyer, I have trouble understanding why this case was filed. I can’t imagine the Court reaching any other outcome. While alcoholism is a disability, an employee who drinks at work, particularly while driving a commercial snowplow on public streets, is not likely to prevail in an employment law case if he or she gets fired as a result. The lesson here is that disability discrimination laws are meant to give qualified employees with a disability a fair opportunity to do their jobs free from discrimination, not to shield employees whose drinking and driving puts the safety of the public in jeopardy.