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Alcoholism and Disability Accommodation in the Workplace

Posted On: January, 21 2015

The recent Ontario human rights case of Huffman v. Mitchell Plastics, 2011 HRTO 1745, raises several important issues related to accommodating disabilities in the workplace, and serves as a good reminder to both employers and employees about their respective duties.

In this case, the applicant, Trevor Huffman, alleged discrimination in employment on the ground of disability. At the company’s year-end holiday party in December 2009, the applicant became intoxicated and acted in an inappropriate manner by making physical threats and sexually inappropriate comments to colleagues, management and their spouses. The following Monday, the applicant was called into HR and was terminated for his actions at the party. The applicant argued that he suffered from alcoholism and that the employer knew or ought to have known about his disability. In dismissing the application, the HRTO member found that the applicant had not established that he advised the employer of his disability.

The Huffman decision provides a useful overview of the test to determine whether an employer is obligated to accommodate an employee’s disability. First, alcoholism is a recognized disability under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Second, in order to establish discrimination in employment within the meaning of the Code, the applicant must prove three things on a balance of probabilities:

(a) s/he has the disability in question;

(b) s/he has made his or her employer aware of the disability; and

(c) the employer failed to accommodate the applicant.

This case also serves as a useful reminder to both employers and employees of their respective duties. An employee who has a disability has the responsibility of notifying his or her employer. Once an employer has been notified, the employer has a duty to make meaningful inquiries about the disability-related needs of the individual to determine whether or not a duty to accommodate exists.

As this case illustrates, it is important for an employee to be clear about his or her disability when notifying an employer. Here, the employee had approached a human resources generalist about his alcoholism and inquired about the company paying for a particular medication that was known to be effective in treating addictions including alcoholism, smoking, and gambling. The HR generalist testified that she thought the medication was for smoking, and the applicant did not provide any other evidence, such as a doctor’s note, regarding his alcoholism.

Disability related accommodation issues often arise in an employment setting and it is important for both employers and employees to remember their respective duties. For a disability like alcoholism, which may be less apparent to other people, it is particularly important for the employee to notify his or her employer of their disability so that they can work together to determine if and what kind of accommodation is necessary.


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