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Fla.: Firefighter Fired for Drug Use May Proceed with ADA Discrimination Claim

By Rita Zeidner  7/22/2014
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A Florida firefighter who was fired for failing a drug test may proceed with his claim that the termination violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and a comparable state law, according to a June 18, 2014, federal court ruling.

After being fired by his former employer, Estero Fire Rescue (EFR), Christopher Martin sued. He alleged that his “occasional drug use” was precipitated by anxiety and depression  — conditions that qualified for accommodation under the ADA and the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992 (FCRA).

Fire officials sought to have the suit dismissed, arguing that failing a drug test was grounds for termination.

In order to make a successful claim under the ADA, an employee must show that he or she was qualified to perform the work. The ADA provides that an employee is not qualified if he is “currently engaged” in the use of illegal drugs. Although the term “currently engaged” is not defined, courts have held that the test is whether “the drug use is sufficiently recent to justify an employer's reasonable belief that the drug abuse remained an ongoing problem.”

The ADA includes a “safe harbor” that extends ADA protections to an employee with past drug use if the employee:

*Successfully completed a supervised drug rehabilitation program and is no longer engaging in the illegal use of drugs, or has otherwise been rehabilitated successfully and is no longer engaging in such use.

*Is participating in a supervised rehabilitation program and is no longer using illegal drugs.

*Is erroneously regarded as engaging in such use, but is not engaging in such use.

EFR claimed that safe harbor protections aren’t available to Martin because he was currently engaging in drug use.

Martin, however, argued that a recent relapse of depression triggered a temporary return to drugs. He had been drug-free for a substantial period before he was fired and had also sought medical treatment and counseling for his drug use, he said.

Judge John E. Steele was persuaded, stating that Martin’s claims “make it plausible that he was not ‘currently engaging’ in the use of drugs at the time of his termination.” In addition he sought rehabilitation. Thus, Martin may be able to invoke the second and third “prongs” of ADA’s safe harbor provision, Steele said.

In addition, Martin may be able to able to prove he was fired in retaliation for seeking counseling and a discipline waiver to accommodate his disability, Steele concluded.

Martin v. Estero Fire Rescue, M.D. Fla., Case No 2:13 cv-393 (June 18, 2014).

Rita Zeidner is a freelance business writer and former senior writer for HR Magazine.
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