Fired Alcoholic Launches Disability Lawsuit

By Will Godfrey 08/21/11

Alcoholism's status is questioned as exec loses job for booze-induced memory loss, cites Disabilities Act and sues.

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A box of lost memories? Thinkstock

Alcoholism's status as a bona fide disability looks set to go on trial in Florida: Ex-research communications director Frank Stephenson is suing Florida State University—his employer of 28 years—for $75,000 over his unceremonious dismissal in September 2010. His attorney, Sidney Mathew, said that Stephenson's habit of "self-medicating with alcohol" for depression was well known by FSU, but "They singled him out and threw him away like an old shoe." His complaint states: "Plaintiff Frank H. Stephenson had the disability of alcoholism, characterized by a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited one or more of his major life activities, including his ability to work." Stephenson's problems escalated in early 2009, when he hired one Elizabeth Bettendorf as an Associate Editor at the FSU publications office that he ran. Bettendorf soon complained to the personnel department that her boss admitted to having memory lapses because of his alcoholism and had also been abusive and bullying toward her and others. Stephenson says he was assured his job was safe after this complaint—but was suddenly fired a month later and escorted from the campus. His lawsuit holds that he "was protected against discrimination in employment with FSU because he was an individual with a current alcohol dependence problem who could perform the essential function of the job he held and whose alcohol dependence problem did not present a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals in the workplace." The Americans with Disabilities Act offers protection from discrimination to alcoholics. But Fix legal expert Michael Cohen, Director of the Florida Lawyers Assistance Program, warned of the limitations of such protection in his video response to a reader's question earlier this year: "There is no protection under the [federal] ADA if you are an addict or an alcoholic that's actively using."

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Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of Substance.com, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.

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