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

by McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC

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.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC

McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at:

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.