NY Court of Appeals Holds "Perceived" Alcoholism is Not a Disability Under NYC Law

A few months ago we discussed a pending disability discrimination lawsuit involving two former NYPD police officers who were falsely accused of suffering from alcoholism. The officers sued under New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), which prohibits any form of employment discrimination based on an “actual or perceived” disability. Yet this same law also defines alcoholism as a disability only when an individual is “recovering or has recovered” and “currently is free of such abuse.”

Despite this qualifying language, a federal jury returned a verdict for the two plaintiffs and ordered the City of New York to pay damages. The City appealed to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal trial courts in New York. The City argued that it was entitled to a new trial because the NYCHRL “does not extend to untreated alcoholism”--or in this case, non-existent alcoholism.

Because the City’s appeal involved an interpretation of state law, the Second Circuit asked the New York Court of Appeals to determine whether or not the NYCHRL prevents a plaintiff “from bringing a disability discrimination claim based solely on a perception of untreated alcoholism?” In an October 17 opinion, a majority of the Court of Appeals answered “yes” to this question.

The Court of Appeals said there was “no ambiguity in the plain language of the NYCHRL, which is only open to one interpretation,” namely that a person has an alcoholism disability when they seek and successfully complete treatment for addiction. The NYCHRL does not cover “employer actions motivated by a concern with respect to the abuse of alcohol.” Discrimination only occurs when an employer “unfairly typecasts” an employee who has abused alcohol in the past.

Two judges on the Court of Appeals disagreed with the majority's decision. Associate Judge Michael J. Garcia wrote in a separate dissenting opinion that while the City's interpretation of the NYCHRL was “plausible,” the courts are required to “broadly” construe the statute “in favor of discrimination plaintiffs” whenever possible.

Indeed, while the NYCHRL generally provides greater protections than both federal and New York State employment discrimination laws, here Judge Garcia noted “for the first time,” the Court of Appeals actually finds the city statute provides less protection. “[U]nder the majority's reading,” Judge Garcia warned, “an employer may lawfully punish an employee — by denying benefits, refusing a promotion, or terminating them — based solely on a misguided assumption about that employee's conduct.”

Get Help From a New York Disability Discrimination Lawyer

Hopefully, the Court of Appeals' ruling will not lead to the types of employer abuses warned of in Judge Garcia's dissent. But this case does illustrate how a perceived disability can often be just as damaging to an employee's career as an actual one. This is why it is critical to speak with a qualified New York employment attorney as soon as possible if you suspect any kind of discrimination based on a real or perceived disability. Contact the Law Offices of Mahir S. Nisar today at (800) 496-3076 if you need help today.