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Houston Court of Appeals Holds That an Employee Recently Released from a Drug Rehab Program Is a "Current" Drug Addict for Purposes of Disability Discrimination

The disability discrimination statutes under both federal and state law expressly exclude current drug addiction as a disability. In Melendez v. Houston Independent School District, No. 14-12-00946-CV (Tex. App. -- Houston [14th Dist.] Dec. 5, 2013), the Fourteenth Court of Appeals considered the application of that rule to an employee who had recently been released from a drug treatment program.

Melendez was a clerk for HISD. She had a history of opiate dependency relating to prescription drugs. After spending five days in the hospital receiving treatment for her addiction, Melendez returned to work and was fired. The parties disputed whether she was fired due to her addiction or whether she was fired for misconduct that she committed immediately before her hospitalization. She sued for disability discrimination, but the trial court granted summary judgment on the ground that she did not qualify as disabled. Melendez appealed.

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals noted that the definition of "disability" in Chapter 21 of the Texas Labor Code specifically excludes "a current condition of addiction to the use of alcohol, a drug, an illegal substance, or a federally controlled substance." Tex. Labor Code § 21.002(6)(A). Melendez argued, however, that she was no longer addicted on the date of her termination, because she had received treatment at the hospital. Thus, she argued that her addiction was not a "current" condition and that she was terminated because she was "regarded as" disabled.

The court rejected that argument. The court examined various federal precedents and concluded that "a 'current condition of addiction' is a condition of addiction that is sufficiently recent to justify the employer's reasonable belief that the addiction remained an ongoing problem." Applying that rule, the court easily disposed of Melendez's claim:

In this case, the evidence conclusively established that Melendez suffered from an opiate addiction in the days and weeks preceding her resignation. During her deposition, Melendez testified that she was consuming twenty to forty prescription pills per day, far in excess of her prescribed dosage. Melendez also admitted that she had been addicted to opiates before, that she relapsed, and that her use of pills was "ongoing" in December 2009.1 On at least one occasion, Melendez suffered an impairment on the job because of her use of drugs. The record also reflects that Melendez was diagnosed with an opiate dependency when she readmitted herself to a hospital six days before her resignation. As a matter of law, Melendez's addiction was sufficiently recent at the time of her purported termination for HISD to reasonably believe that her addiction was ongoing and interfering with the essential duties of her job.

Melendez insists that she was free from addiction on the day of her resignation, but this contention is not dispositive. The record showed that Melendez had refrained from opiates for less than a week before her termination; "[s]uch a period of abstinence, particularly following such a severe drug problem, does not remove from the employer's mind a reasonable belief that the drug use remains a problem." Indeed, Melendez testified that her opiate dependency continued until the early part of 2010, sometime after her separation with HISD. (Citation omitted).

Melendez also argued that she was protected by the "safe harbor" provision in the Americans with Disabilities Act for employees who have completed a drug treatment program.  However, the court noted that Chapter 21 of the Texas Labor Code contains no safe harbor provision.  The court also noted that the ADA safe harbor provision applies only to employees who have been drug-free for a significant period of time.  The court found that five days would not be sufficient even if the ADA applied.

The court thus affirmed the summary judgment in favor of HISD.

David C. Holmes is a Houston employment lawyer with The Law Offices of David C. Holmes