Fired Police Officer Sues, Claims Alcoholism Discrimination

 Former Gresham, Ore., police officer Jason Servo speaks at his attorney´s office in Portland, Ore., Friday, April 26, 2013.  Servo, fired for driving drunk in an unmarked police car while off-duty in January, 2011, has filed a $6 million lawsuit against the city, the police chief and others, alleging his rights were violated under the Americans with Disabilities Act.(AP Photo/Don Ryan)<br />

If you get drunk and drive a company car into a ditch, can your employer legally fire you for it - if you're an alcoholic? That's the question at the heart of a lawsuit filed by Jason Servo, a former Gresham, Oregon police officer.

In January 2011, Servo admits he got drunk and when he was off-duty, crashed an unmarked police car into a ditch.
Servo, 43, was arrested and later pled guilty to driving under the influence and entered an alcohol treatment program. He was fired. Now, he has filed a $6 million lawsuit against the city of Gresham and the officials who terminated him, claiming he is an alcoholic and his rights were violated under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Just as with any type of disability or disease, they should have made some kind of effort to accommodate that, or some kind of effort to work with him, and not simply sever all ties," said Shawn Kollie, one of Servo's attorneys.

Gresham Police Chief Craig Junginger was out of the office Friday. City spokeswoman Laura Shepard said officials would not discuss the case because their policy is to not talk about pending litigation.

According to the lawsuit, Servo, a detective who was the department's lead firearms instructor, had taken the police car to a firearms training session and then later joined some of his coworkers for dinner and drinks. "This was a common practice among (Gresham) officers and had become an inherent part of the culture," the lawsuit said.

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Servo, alone in the car, wasn't hurt in the car accident. He refused to take a breathalyzer or field sobriety test, and the deputy who arrested him later testified that Servo was probably one of the "top 10" most intoxicated people he had arrested in nearly 15 years of drunken-driving investigations.

Two months later, Servo pled guilty to the DUI and entered a diversion program. He fulfilled the program's requirements and the DUI was dismissed. He also voluntarily entered an in-patient program at a Serenity Lane drug-and-alcohol treatment center, where he was diagnosed as an alcoholic.

"There were times where I went home and I couldn't get crime scenes out of my head; I went to drinking for that and there are other officers that do the same thing," Servo said Friday, adding that he has now been sober for 818 days. The lawsuit alleged the police chief fired Servo to save money, ignoring the known disability of alcoholism. "I know it sounds kind of like a conspiracy theorist's claim," Kollie said, "but we do believe there was a funding issue in the Gresham police department at the time."

Such "alcoholism discrimination" cases are not unusual. Earlier this year, Jonathan Blazek, a snowplow driver, sued the city of Lakewood, Ohio after he was fired for allegedly drinking on the job. Blazek claimed his dismissal violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because he was an alcoholic. These lawsuits, however, have had mixed success. In 1992, a gym teacher sued the school where he worked; the school had denied him a job as a coach, saying his history of heavy drinking, despite rehab, would bring "negative attention" to the team. The lawsuit was settled for $50,000. But last year, a Sarasota, Florida police officer sued for disability discrimination after he was fired for repeatedly showing up to work hungover. He lost his suit.

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The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's fact sheet provides an example of how an alcoholic can justly be fired, and it's similar to the Servo case. In its example, a federal police officer is involved in an accident for which he is charged with drunken driving. About a month later, he gets a termination notice stating that his conduct makes it inappropriate for him to continue. The officer says the arrest made him realize he is an alcoholic and that he is obtaining treatment. According to the EEOC, the employer may proceed with the firing.

The example, of course, is not precise because Servo's crash happened while he was off-duty. "The ADA has provisions in it, across the board, to not require employers to subject other people to unreasonable risk to accommodate a disability," said Bob Joondeph, executive director with Disability Rights Oregon.

Joondeph said he couldn't comment on any specifics in the Servo case, but generally accommodations for an alcoholic might include letting the worker attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings - not allowing them to drink on the job or drive drunk.

Separate from the lawsuit, Servo is appealing the standards-and-training agency's decision to strip him of his police certification.Servo is currently working as a private investigator.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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