A fired State Lottery official says she was discriminated against due to her alcoholism.
That legal claim is rooted in long-standing disability law, according to Teresa Nelson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.
Johnene Canfield, ex-director of operations for the lottery, was fired earlier this year after a December car wreck in which she was charged with driving while intoxicated.
Last week Canfield sued the state, including State Lottery Executive Director Ed Van Petten, for firing her despite knowing she was disabled as the result of her alcoholism. The lawsuit, first reported by the Associated Press, alleges that Van Petten encouraged her to drink at out-of-state work conferences even though she had been forbidden from doing so after a suspension related to her drinking.
Canfield declined an interview request.
Canfield also alleges gender discrimination in the suit, charging that two men in the office avoided firing despite transgressions, and also that she was paid less while carrying a heavier workload.
Nelson of the ACLU, which is not involved in the suit, said even though alcohol dependency is not spelled out in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act or Minnesota’s equivalent law, regulatory agencies and courts have interpreted chemical dependency as qualifying for disability status. The Justice Department, which crafted rules after the law passed, defines a disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual” and specifically mentions alcohol dependency.
But the rights are not unlimited, Nelson said. The disabled person can request a “reasonable accommodation” to their disability, she said.
That usually means giving the worker the opportunity to attend an alcohol treatment program, Nelson said.
If the worker cannot do the job even after the accommodation, the employer can discipline or fire the worker.
Workers have more protection if they are able to perform their job duties even with the disability, Nelson said.
In the court filing, Canfield lays out a distinguished rise through the ranks of the State Lottery beginning in 1989, eventually becoming director of operations. Effects of alcoholism developed in 2011, and she was suspended for 10 days in early 2012 for being drunk at out-of-state lottery conferences. She was banned from drinking on future trips. Still, she continued to receive good marks in performance reviews, according to the court filing.
Van Petten was appointed executive director of the State Lottery in March 2012. From then until November 2014, Van Petten and Canfield drank together at out-of-state conferences, even though he spoke to her twice about her drinking interfering with work duties, according to the lawsuit.
In September of 2013, the two were on a conference call while sitting together at a bar.
After the alleged DWI incident, Canfield was placed on leave and sought and received treatment, but she was not reinstated. Instead, she was terminated because, according to state government, her “actions have caused loss of trust and confidence” and “negatively impacted the reputation of the Lottery.”