Last Call! Third Circuit Court Of Appeals Rules That Employer Can Terminate Employee For Violating Strict No Alcohol Return To Work Agreement

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The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a decision holding that an employer's termination of an employee for violating a very broad and restrictive return to work agreement (RWA), which prohibited the employee from all drug and alcohol use during both work and personal time, was lawful.

In that case, Ostrowski v. Con-Way Freight, Inc., the employer maintained strict drug and alcohol screening policies, in compliance with federal motor carrier safety regulations issued by the Department of Labor, as well as an Employee Assistance Program. The employee, a Driver Sales Representative, requested a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in order to voluntarily participate in a treatment program for alcoholism, which the employer approved. Following completion of his treatment program, the employee returned to work subject to a strict RWA by which he agreed to remain "free of drugs and alcohol (on company time as well as off company time) for the duration of [his] employment." Within only a month of his return to work, the employee relapsed and resumed drinking alcohol, leading him to once again admit himself into a treatment program. At that time, the employer terminated the employee for violating the RWA.

The employee filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that his termination violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) and the FMLA. More specifically, the employee alleged claims of disability discrimination, retaliation and failure to accommodate his disability under the ADA and PHRA and claims of retaliation, interference and unlawful denial of FMLA-protected leave. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer on all claims; the employee then appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

In support of his ADA and PHRA claims, the employee argued that his violation of the RWA could not serve as a legitimate basis for termination because the RWA itself ran afoul of the ADA's prohibition against applying employment qualification standards, tests or other selection criteria that screen out or tend to screen out an individual with a disability. In rejecting this argument, the Third Circuit agreed with court decisions in other jurisdictions, concluding that a return-to-work agreement which imposes employment conditions different from those applied to other employees does not necessarily violate the ADA. While acknowledging that the RWA did impose standards different than those applied to the employee's co-workers, the court observed a nuanced but critical distinction that the difference in treatment resulted from the terms of the agreement rather than disability discrimination.

In addition, the court noted that the employee failed to demonstrate how the RWA subjected him to discrimination based on his alleged disability (alcoholism) as opposed to regulating his conduct (drinking alcohol). In this regard, the court reasoned that the RWA did not restrict or preclude individuals who may suffer from alcoholism from working for the employer, but simply prohibited an employee subject to its terms from drinking alcohol.

The court concluded, therefore, that because the RWA was not invalid under the ADA, the employee's violation of its terms was a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the employer to terminate his employment. Moreover, because the employee failed to produce any evidence that his termination based on violation of the RWA was a pretext for disability discrimination, summary judgment dismissal of his ADA and PHRA claims was warranted.

The court also rejected the employee's FMLA claims for similar reasons. More specifically, the court concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the employee was terminated for requesting medical leave or for any reason other than his violation of the RWA. The court noted that there was no evidence to suggest that the employee would not have been terminated for violating the RWA if he had not requested FMLA leave. Moreover, the court rejected the employee's argument that the RWA's strict no alcohol requirement violated the FMLA because it had the effect of chilling and discouraging his right to request benefits and protections under the FMLA. The Court noted that the employer requested the RWA for a legitimate business reason, namely, pursuant to its obligations under DOT regulations to maintain strict drug and alcohol policies for covered employees. In our opinion, an employer that is not directly subject to DOT regulations presumably would also have the ability to impose a reasonable return to work agreement following an employee's leave for alcohol or drug treatment, particularly if there are clear and established drug and alcohol policies in place prior to requiring such an agreement.

This decision was issued by the Third Circuit as a non-precedential (non-binding) decision. Nonetheless, the decision provides valuable insight and serves as a good indicator of how the Third Court and district courts within our jurisdiction will rule in future cases on this same issue. This case illustrates that carefully drafted and tailored return to work agreements can be used by employers to manage problematic employee conduct. Such conduct, if left unattended, can turn into lengthy and recurring ordeals that become costly, frustrating and drain valuable company resources. A suitable return to work agreement may be a very good option in certain cases. Beware, however, that not all return to work agreements are created equal. It is advisable, therefore, that counsel should be consulted in advance to ensure that any return to work agreement under consideration is properly drafted to protect the employer's interests and legally compliant to the fullest extent possible.