Employee Fired for Refusing to Attend AA Meetings Gets $305,000 Settlement

By Allen Smith, J.D. November 21, 2022
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pilot flying plane

​Employers that require employees to attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings as part of rehabilitation programs must make sure they have alternatives for employees with religious objections to AA. United Airlines didn't in at least one instance, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Now the company has agreed to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit by paying the pilot it allegedly refused to accommodate $305,000. We've gathered articles on the news from SHRM Online and other outlets.

FAA Medical Certificate Lost

The pilot was diagnosed with alcohol dependency and lost his Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) medical certificate. Under a United program, pilots with addictions who want to obtain new medical certificates from the FAA must regularly attend AA meetings. The pilot, who is Buddhist, objected to the religious content of AA and sought to substitute his attendance at such meetings with regular attendance at a Buddhism-based peer support group. United declined this request, and the pilot couldn't get a new FAA medical certificate permitting him to fly again.

(Business Insider via Yahoo!life)

AA Program

The AA program was a religious organization, the pilot concluded after he began attending its meetings. The program's 12 steps include giving yourself over to God or "a power greater than ourselves," and its meetings were held in a Christian church. The pilot didn't want to pledge allegiance to religious views he didn't hold in a place where he didn't feel comfortable. He learned about a nearly identical program called "Refuge Recovery" that catered to Buddhists. This is the program United allegedly turned down.

(Only Sky)

Religious Accommodations

As part of the settlement, United will reinstate the pilot into its Human Intervention Motivational Study (HIMS) program for pilots with addictions while allowing him to attend a non-12-step peer recovery program. The company will also accept religious accommodation requests in its program going forward, institute a new policy on religious accommodations and train its employees.

(EEOC)

United Statement

"Regarding the EEOC, safety is our top priority, and we have the highest confidence in the HIMS program, considered the gold standard within our industry for the monitoring of substance abuse," United said in a statement.

(HR Dive)

Appeals Court Decision Involving Another Refusal to Attend AA Meetings

In a separate case, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a former employee of the FAA who refused to attend AA meetings can proceed to trial on a claim of retaliation. The employee, who was subject to a strict drug and alcohol policy, was arrested for driving while intoxicated. The policy let the employee avoid immediate discipline if she completed an FAA-designed rehabilitation plan. Failing to follow the plan would result in termination.

The FAA had a rehabilitation plan that required the employee to get approval before taking medications and to attend AA meetings. The employee objected to AA, which she said violated her religious beliefs, and requested an accommodation. Her supervisor declined, and the employee filed a formal complaint of religious discrimination. Meanwhile, the employee clashed with the FAA about how she was supposed to seek medication approval. Following the discrimination complaint, the supervisor drafted a memorandum of noncompliance with the rehabilitation plan and HR fired the employee based on the memo.

The district court granted summary judgment for the FAA, but the appeals court determined that the FAA's interpretation and enforcement of its rehabilitation plan were so "objectively unreasonable" that a jury could justifiably find them pretextual. The court also concluded that termination was a disproportionately severe penalty. The appeals court reversed summary judgment and sent the matter to the district court for further proceedings.

(SHRM Online

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