Alcohol addiction ruled a disability in landmark Manitoba case

A drunk women is pictured in this stock photo by Getty Images.
A drunk women is pictured in this stock photo by Getty Images.

Is alcohol addiction a disability? Yes, according to a landmark decision by the Manitoba Human Rights Board.

The firing of Linda Horrocks from a Flin Flon health clinic, who was accused of drinking on the job, was ruled unjust in a decision released by the Board this week.

Horrocks worked for the clinic, run by the Northern Regional Health Authority, from 2009 until she was fired in 2012 — a year after she was suspended for being drunk outside of work. Horrocks had also been under court order not to drink between May 2010 to May 2011 due to a drunk driving charge.

After her suspension she reluctantly, and against the advice of her union, signed an agreement that allowed her to go back to work and get paid again. The agreement imposed strict conditions on her to stay away from alcohol at all times, as well as seek alcohol counselling.

After she was reinstated, however, her employer was told she was spotted drunk again outside of work and fired her. Horrocks denied the claim and filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

The board ruled an employee can’t be fired for having an alcohol addiction — viewed as a disability — without making reasonable efforts to accommodate the employee as soon as he or she was aware of the affliction.

Sherri Walsh, the adjudicator, stated NRHA: “discriminated against the complainant on the basis of her disability.”

In their decision, the board cited a 2013 ruling that also said alcohol addiction is a disability under the province’s human rights code.

That is further supported by s. 25 of the Canadian Human Rights Act that includes “previous or existing dependence on alcohol or a drug” as a definition of disability.

What made things worse in the board’s view, was the fact the employer didn’t seek more information about the disability from medical experts, but instead relied on their own experience with alcohol addiction. This was a failure in accommodation and therefore the NHRA “violated the complainant’s rights … by unfairly depriving her of an opportunity to participate in the workplace.”

The board decided that not only is Horrocks to be given back her job, but she is also to receive three years backpay, plus $10,000 in damages to her dignity. It also gave Flin Flon three months to implement a “reasonable accommodation policy.”

The decision is precedent setting, because it’s the first by the Manitoba Human Rights Board to order an employer to give the employee their job back where disability discrimination was involved.

The question now is: will other provinces follow the example set by Manitoba and punish employers just as harshly for firing an employee with substantive substance abuse issues?

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