Alcoholism and the ADA

By James Hatch

Oct. 10, 2006

Dr. Ronald Roger Ward, while employed as a head and neck surgeon at Kaiser Foundation Hospital in San Francisco, voluntarily requested a leave of absence to seek treatment for alcohol dependency. When he completed nine weeks of treatment, Ward returned to his position, and his staff privileges were restored following an evaluation period.

Later, Ward was asked by KFH to participate in a joint on-call arrangement with another KFH facility, but that facility denied Ward staff privileges on the grounds of his history of alcohol dependency.

Ward filed a complaint against KFH in U.S. district court, alleging that the denial of staff privileges violated the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

The district court dismissed the action. Initially, the district court agreed that Ward had sufficiently alleged that he was excluded from his position solely because of his alcoholism, thus meeting the causation pleading requirement for a Rehabilitation Act claim. However, Ward’s claim failed, according to the district court, because he did not allege that his alcoholism substantially limited any major life activity, such as work, or that KFH regarded him as disabled. Rather, according to Ward, his alcoholism “never interfered with his medical practice.”

The district court has since given Ward the opportunity to file an amended complaint. Ronald Ward v. Kaiser Foundation Hosp., N.D. Cal., No. 3:06-cv-02645 (8/31/06).

Impact: Employers should note that in order for a protected disability to exist, the plaintiff must address the specific condition which affords protection under the ADA and is the basis for the employer’s alleged violation of that law.

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