In Makinen v. City of New York, New York’s Court of Appeals held the New York City Human Rights Law precludes an individual from bringing a claim of disability discrimination based on a mistaken perception of untreated alcoholism.
The question arose in a case brought by police officers against the City of New York and certain individuals alleging discrimination based on the mistaken perception that the plaintiffs were alcoholics. The plaintiffs had been referred to an internal counseling service and directed to undergo treatment even though neither plaintiff had been diagnosed as suffering from alcoholism. The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in federal court under New York State and City Human Rights Laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court held individuals regarded as untreated alcoholics could state a claim under the City Human Rights law because analogous claims were available under state and federal law. On appeal, the Second Circuit certified the following question to the Court of Appeals: “Whether sections 8-102(16)(c) and 8-107(1)(a) of the New York City Administrative Code preclude a plaintiff from bringing a disability discrimination claim based solely on a perception of untreated alcoholism?”
The Court of Appeals answered the certified question in the affirmative, finding the City Human Rights law was “only open to one reasonable interpretation: the disability of alcoholism shall only apply to a person who (1) is recovering or has recovered, and (2) currently is free of such abuse.”
Since the Restoration Act of 2005, courts have broadly construed the City Human Rights law to provide greater protections for employees than its federal and state counterparts. The Court of Appeals’ decision in Makinen represents a rare finding that the City Human Rights law provides less protection than state and federal law. Even so, employers should remain cognizant of the provisions of the New York State Human Rights Law and the Americans with Disabilities Act, as they already prohibit discrimination based on perceived alcoholism.