BY: MICHELE BRAUKMANN, FOUNDING ATTORNEY
Addiction, Recovery, and Discrimination
There is hope. I write today both in my professional capacity as Attorney and Founding Member of Meridian Law, as well as in my personal role as a Mother, Woman, Survivor, and Person in Recovery. I want to share some insights and legal information about a topic that is personal to millions of people in this world – one that intimately affects individuals in their family lives, individual lives, business lives, and working lives.
The topic of addiction, its effects upon those suffering from it, and the legal intricacies involved with dealing with this disease as an addict.
Almost four years ago, I began my personal recovery from an alcohol substance use disorder. I spent many decades, through my twenties and thirties, not struggling with alcohol addiction, through the birth of – and now raising of – four children, through professional advancements, and through multiple life changes. However, after a series of events in my life that were very personally challenging for me, I began to misuse, overuse, and heavily rely upon alcohol to function – really, survive – in my life. My choice to become sober did not happen without a significant “nudge” – well, one could call it “hitting rock bottom” for me, because it was exactly that – when I was arrested for a felony DUI. After spending three months in treatment after my arrest, it became completely clear to me that alcohol has no place in my life.
I have, since that time four years ago, been on a beautiful, hard, and amazing journey of recovery from alcohol abuse. This recovery journey has involved substantial personal and professional changes for me, and it has forced me to analyze, alter, and embrace significant growth in my life. Throughout the course of my recovery, I have been blessed to meet thousands of individuals – some with very similar paths to addiction as my own, some with markedly-different stories – and grow and learn in my recovery with people who want the same thing that I want – a life blessed with sobriety, a clean mind and body, and continual spiritual and emotional growth and advancement.
Recovery has personally given me the gift of courage, compassion, and understanding for others that are struggling with various forms of addiction. Some of the strongest and bravest people that I have been blessed to meet are recovering alcoholics and addicts. Their vulnerability in sharing their own journeys, and my reciprocation of the same, is an incredible gift to me, and it has compelled me on a path that has changed my life both personally and professionally.
In the course of my recovery, I have met countless addicts that are struggling with various legal issues. Many of these are criminal in nature, as addiction often wreaks legal havoc on the lives of those struggling with the disease. While Meridian Law does not necessarily offer legal services in the criminal law realm, we want to make available our firm as a resource for those looking for help in dealing with any criminal issues stemming from their addiction. Please call or email us. We are happy to provide you the names and contact information for attorneys in the Montana community that are skilled in dealing with criminal issues, as well as are compassionate in their representation and understanding of the reasons that many addicts are dealing with criminal legal issues. We also would be humbled to provide you resources and contact information, if you are struggling with addiction, that include social, housing, treatment, counseling, and various other community “connections” to assist you in finding a path towards recovery.
Here at Meridian Law, one way that we can specifically help the fellow addict is in providing legal advice regarding various issues of discrimination, as it relates to the manifestation of this disease in the workplace or in public accommodations. We can provide this advice on a fee basis, or if you and we decide that you have a lawsuit of merit against, for example, an employer for failure to accommodate workplace issues arising out of your addiction, we would be honored to discuss our representation of you and whether a lawsuit is appropriate to provide recourse for you. If you and we decide to retain Meridian Law to represent you, we will handle your case on a contingency basis -- meaning, you do not have to pay any fees upfront. If we do not recover monetary damages on your behalf, there will be no cost to you in pursuing your claim.
Addiction discrimination is a complex area of the law. Many people, including employers, do not realize that addiction is, in fact, a disability that provides “protected class” status for those suffering from the disease. If you are suffering from an addiction, and you need to seek treatment to begin recovery, the law requires your employer to accommodate your treatment. We have seen countless cases where employers do not understand their legal obligation to treat addiction as exactly what it is – a disease that provides disability protection under the law. Addiction is not different than other diseases, at least as it relates to the protection the law provides someone suffering from it.
Just a few short months ago, the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) reported an important case regarding the protected nature of addiction as a disability – in this particular case, an opiod addiction – and the legal requirement that an employer allow an employee adequate leave time to seek rehabilitation treatment for an addiction.
The case involved SoftPro, an east-coast software company. The abbreviated facts of the SoftPro case are as follows:
1. SoftPro, a software company headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina, paid $80,000 to settle a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) disability discrimination lawsuit after allegedly firing an employee for taking leave for inpatient treatment regarding substance abuse.
2. The EEOC said that, when an IT worker with a history of opiate addiction who participated in a doctor-supervised medication-assisted treatment (MAT) took leave to admit himself to an inpatient treatment facility to eliminate the need for MAT, he was questioned about the reason for the leave upon his return and then fired. The worker’s employment was terminated because he was regarded as disabled — a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
3. Not only did the employee ultimately recover damages for the wrongful discrimination, but under the three-year consent decree settling the lawsuit, SoftPro also agreed to revise, implement and distribute personnel policies stating that the company does not exclude employees based on their participation in a medication-assisted treatment program; to provide annual training to its HR team, managers, supervisors and employees; to post a notice regarding the settlement; and to report to the EEOC all negative actions the company takes against employees who have a record of substance abuse disorder or who are currently participating in or have successfully completed a drug rehabilitation program.
There are many other such cases involving an employer’s treatment of an employee struggling with an addiction, including ones addressing how an employer must accommodate this protected class, what types of policies and procedures employers are required to have in addressing addiction as a disease, extension of benefits (including health) during leave time periods, required leave, and various other actions an employer is legally-required to take when an employee reports struggling with an alcohol or drug addiction.
At Meridian Law, we are intimately familiar with the legal issues involved in addiction discrimination. If you need advice about how to handle a present-employment situation, or if you believe you have been discriminated against for your addiction, we would be honored to meet with you and discuss the facts of your personal situation. We can assist in resolving the matter with your employer, if you are still employed, or we can advise you on the merits of a possible EEOC and Montana Human Rights Act claim, as well as represent you in such a lawsuit, should you decide to retain us. We understand the complexities of the law in employee addiction-discrimination. More importantly, however, we personally understand and can relate to the struggles you may have faced or are presently facing.
Addiction can be painfully isolating. We know this from our own personal experience. But, you are not alone. You do not have to suffer adverse employment consequences, simply because you are seeking help for your addiction. And, if you have, you not only can recover monetary damages, but you can compel valuable change by your existing or former employer – requiring them to enact the appropriate policies and procedures and ensure lawful handling of addiction issues – for future employees suffering from this disease.
And, always remember: Every today, including today, is the start of the rest of your life -- and the rest of your life can be the life you deserve.