eCaseNote 2005 No. 01

Duty to Accommodate Employeeʹs Alcoholism?

Chopra v. Syncrude Canada Ltd.(2003) ABQB 504

Our firm has reviewed this Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench case and believes a brief summary would be of interest to any of our employer clients. 

Mr. Chopra commenced an action against his former employer, Syncrude Canada, for damages for wrongful dismissal. He had been employed as a senior electrical engineer with Syncrude for 14 years, was a highly valued employee and was only 8 months away from retirement.

   In violation of Syncrudeʹs policy, of which Chopra was aware, Chopra was found drinking during working hours and was unfit to drive himself home. Syncrude held a termination meeting but decided to allow Chopra to improve his situation by undergoing therapy. A few days later, Chopra was again found drinking on the job, and was suspended from the treatment program. Syncrude again attempted to accommodate by permitting Chopra to complete the program. However, several further incidents occurred in which he avoided coming to work or avoided medical assessments when it seemed that he might have been drinking. When he was yet again found drinking at a work function, Syncrude decided to fire him. Chopra argued that his behaviour resulted from depression‐based alcoholism, a disability that Syncrude insufficiently accommodated, and that it at least should have assisted him in getting through the further eight months he needed to be eligible for a retirement package.

   Although he was still eligible for a pension at age 55, the amount of Chopra’s benefit would have been substantially higher if he had not been dismissed. Following termination, Syncrude restored the plaintiffʹs medical benefits so that he could receive psychological counselling for depression.

An Alberta judge ruled that, whether or not Chopra was disabled, Syncrude met any duty it may have had to accommodate his alcoholism and was justified in dismissing him after a fourth serious breach of its alcohol policy.    Syncrudeʹs alcohol and drug policy was a term of Chopraʹs employment contract. He knowingly violated the policy on several occasions, and Syncrude acted so as to reasonably accommodate his illness. Absent a medically supported request for leave and income replacement through temporary disability benefits, it was reasonable for Syncrude not to make such benefits available to Chopra, and it was justified in terminating him.

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