Fired, Alcoholic Teacher Accuses School Of Disability Discrimination

Jennifer Zeigler had been working as a Georgia middle school teacher for 25 years when she lost her job after driving drunk to school one day. Now Zeigler has filed a federal complaint against the school district that fired her, reports The Daily Citizen of Dalton, Ga., claiming sex and disability discrimination.

While conceding that she is an alcoholic, Ziegler claims that she'd never been drunk at work or school, and she argues that her dismissal amounts to disability discrimination because alcoholism is protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act. In her complaint, filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she also alleges sex discrimination, claiming that two male employees had been arrested for drunken driving and were actually promoted to management afterwards. Another man, she alleges, was hired, despite a DUI on his record.

Last March, Zeigler was arrested on her way to Bagley Middle School in Chatsworth, Ga. Her blood alcohol level was .311, almost four times the legal limit, police say. She pleaded "no contest," and was given 12 months probation and an order to complete a drug and alcohol awareness program. The school district promptly knocked her off its payroll.

By law, alcoholic employees can't be fired for their addiction. But they can fired for failing to meet performance and behavior standards, even if they don't meet these standards because of drinking. Being drunk in the classroom is probably a violation of most schools' performance and behavior standards. That's why Zeigler was fired, according to Mike Tuck, administrative services director for Murray County Schools. If she hadn't been pulled over, "she would have arrived at school, where she would have surely put our students, parents and staff at risk of serious injury or death," he told The Daily Citizen.

Such Lawsuits See Mixed Success

Some alcoholic, or formerly alcoholic, workers have found success with discrimination cases in the past. In 1992, David White sued the Wisconsin high school where he worked as a phys-ed teacher; the school had refused to give him the job of basketball coach, saying his history of heavy drinking, despite a stint in rehab, would bring "negative attention" to the team. The lawsuit settled for $50,000.

The next year, White faced 14 counts of sexual abuse of his students and using drugs.

Other workers have had similar complaints go nowhere. Clinton Knowles, a former Sarasota, Fla., police officer, sued for discrimination after he was fired for repeatedly showing up for work hungover. He lost.

Two alcoholism suits are certainly working their way through the courts. Last year, Frank Stephenson sued Florida State University, his employer of 28 years, for firing him after his alcoholism allegedly led to memory lapses and abusive behavior. A trucking company was also handed a lawsuit last year, after refusing to give a formerly alcoholic employee his job back, after he went through counseling and treatment.

The cases vary, but the principle remains the same. Alcoholics can't lose their jobs just for being alcoholics, but they can lose their jobs if they can't do their jobs because they're alcoholics.

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