A former Daytona State College professor is suing the school for wrongful termination, arguing that his alcoholism is a protected class under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Kenneth Thorson, 40, of Daytona Beach, was given the right to sue after filing a discrimination charge with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, which after 180 days failed to make a recommendation as the law allows.
The college hired Thorson as a tenure-track assistant professor of anatomy, physiology, and biology and earned a nine-month salary of $ 50,200 in early 2019.
Thorson was spotted in a school parking lot near his vehicle on February 25 last year, where he “fell to the ground in a drunk state,” according to a lawsuit in the US District Court in Orlando.
Jeff Hunt, campus security officer, wrote in a report that he couldn’t get Thorson to talk.
“He had urinated his clothes and the alcohol-smelling passenger seat of his vehicle. There was a case of Captain Morgan Rum on the back of his vehicle,” the report said.
According to the report, EMS has shipped Thorson to AdventHealth Palm Coast.
Thorson had signed a policy for “drug-free schools and campuses” when he was first hired as an additional faculty member in 2013. It states that he “will not own or be under the influence of any controlled substances (including alcohol)”. while present on every campus of Daytona State College. “
In a letter dated April 30, 2020, Brian Babb, DSC’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, wrote that the recommendation for Thorson’s resignation was “based on the poisoning incident.”
The board of trustees of the college approved the termination on May 21, 2020.
DSC officials were aware of Thorson’s alcohol dependency problems when he was hired.
Thorson is requesting reinstatement, demanding a refund, attorney fees, and related legal fees. He declined to comment on this story.
A résumé posted on the Chronicle for Higher Education website describes Thorson’s career beginning with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Seton Hall University in 2003. After graduation, he worked as an investment agent for Edward Jones Investments, then as a financial specialist for Wachovia Bank.
He was arrested on February 16, 2006 at the corner of 44 State Road and West Pioneer Trail after a crash. This comes from a report on the Volusia County Clerk website. On his application to work at DSC, Thorson said he was found guilty of driving under the influence of property or personal injury, a first degree offense.
The transcript shows that he was sentenced to five years probation, which ended in less than three years.
As part of the criminal case, he was ordered to pay three victims approximately $ 223,000 in restitution.
One of the victims, Michael Pagan, sued Thorson in a civil court, saying the crash caused him bodily harm, hospitalization, nursing and physical disability, disability, disfigurement, possible deterioration of a pre-existing condition, and impairment of his ability to work and work. The case was settled prior to trial in August 2007, court records show.
Thorson announced the criminal conviction of his application to work at DSC, records show.
Thorson received his PhD from the Palmer College of Chiropractic in 2012. In 2015, he earned a paramedic certificate from DSC and was aiming for a Master of Science degree in life sciences from Clemson University in 2019.
From 2013 he taught at the DSC as an associate professor and taught students human anatomy and physiology as well as medical terminology. He has also taught similar courses at Seminole State College, Bethune-Cookman University, Stetson University, and Florida Technical College.
Alcoholism and the Workplace
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations set out some rights of workers and employers in relation to drugs and alcohol.
“The general rule is that alcoholism can be a disability as defined by ADA that requires reasonable accommodation, but the employer can discipline an employee who violates a workplace policy that bans alcohol in the workplace,” said Jason Bent. Professor of Law at Stetson University.
The EEOC provides an example where alcoholism can help protect an employee: A police officer has a DUI crash and is fired. Although he says the crash caused him to seek treatment, the department can fire him.
“Poor work performance or unsatisfactory behavior – such as absenteeism, delay, disobedience or accidents in the workplace – in connection with an employee’s alcoholism or illegal drug use must not be tolerated if similar performance or behavior would not be acceptable to other employees,” says the EEOC -Manual.
The guidelines also specifically state that employers can establish alcohol-free workplace policies and disciplines or fire workers who violate them, even if alcohol dependence is a factor.
“An employer has the right to prohibit the use of alcohol at work. They have the right to ensure that people are not under the influence of alcohol,” said Rhonda Harvey, chief operating officer of SMA Healthcare, a Daytona Beach-based nonprofit organization of services for people with addictions and mental illnesses.
However, in another EEOC example, a workplace is described as being “lax” to employees who come to work on time. “One day a supervisor sees an employee who he knows is a recovered alcoholic arriving late. Although the employee’s delay is no worse than other employees and there is no evidence that the delay was drinking the supervisor believes that such behavior could be a signal that the employee is drinking again, so the employer reprimands the employee for being late. “In this case, the supervisor’s actions are against the ADA. “
“Under the ADA, an employer has a responsibility to make reasonable accommodation,” said Harvey. “It’s the definition of ‘reasonable’ and ‘not reasonable’. Usually you get into the area where people struggle.
“It’s a difficult situation for an employer and a really difficult one for someone who has a drug problem.”
Need for assistance
Patrick Roland, a licensed substance abuse advisor and expert at help.org, said there remains a stigma, especially when an alcoholic has dropped out of the program. “If they’re not doing well, society doesn’t know how to deal with it. People try to push them away or shove them under the rug, ”he said.
“People still think it’s a choice whether to drink or use drugs,” he said.
While some of the stigma remains, Harvey said that is changing.
“Behavioral health problems, whether it’s substance abuse, alcohol or mental health, everyone knows someone who is affected,” she said. “We are experiencing something that is relatively common in society.”
Removing the stigma of alcoholism helps those affected to some extent, but it remains a challenging hurdle for people who have to work for a living.
“It’s a very serious illness,” said Roland. “There is a lot of pride and a lot of shame and guilt. This disease breaks people’s hearts because they want to be a productive member of society and go to work and become a father and do all the normal things. “
Harvey said the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has already begun to demand “collateral damage” to people caught in a cycle of alcohol or drug addiction.
“It’ll get worse,” she said, “before it gets better.”
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