When is a disability not a disability? When an employer fires a difficult employee based on his inability to get along with his co-workers, his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder diagnosis notwithstanding, at least according to the 9th Circuit in Weaving v. City of Hillsboro (8/15/14).
Matthew Weaving was diagnosed with ADHD as a child. As an adult, he pursued a career as a police office, and later a police detective. He joined the Hillsboro, Oregon, Police Department in 2006. His performance record at the HPD was spotty. His co-workers complained that he was often sarcastic, patronizing, and demeaning.
After a 2009 complaint by a subordinate about Weaving’s bullying, the HPD placed him on paid administrative leave. While on leave, Weaving sought a mental-health evaluation, which concluded that some of his interpersonal difficulties had been caused by his continuing ADHD. Shortly thereafter, the HPD finished its investigation, finding that Weaving had “fostered a hostile work environment for his subordinates and peers,” was “tyrannical, unapproachable, non-communicative, belittling, demeaning, threatening, intimidating, arrogant and vindictive,” and noting that he “does not possess adequate emotional intelligence to successfully work in a team environment, much less lead a team of police officers.” As a result, the HPD fired Weaving, who sued under the Americans with Disabilites Act, claiming that the HPD fired him after he disclosed his ADHD diagnosis.
The 9th Circuit reversed a jury verdict of more than $500,000. Surprisingly, it did so based on a finding that Weaving’s inability to get along with others as a result of his difficult personality did not qualify as an ADA-protected disability.
A “cantankerous person” who has … trouble getting along with coworkers is not disabled under the ADA…. One who is able to communicate with others, though his communications may at times be offensive, “inappropriate, ineffective, or unsuccessful,” is not substantially limited in his ability to interact with others within the meaning of the ADA…. To hold otherwise would be to expose to potential ADA liability employers who take adverse employment actions against ill-tempered employees who create a hostile workplace environment for their colleagues.
Since Congress amended the ADA in 2009 to expand the definition of “disability,” conventional wisdom has said that most medical conditions will qualify for protection under the ADA. This case sets the bounds of the exception. Weaving notwithstanding, employers should not hold out much hope that they will be able to win many ADA cases on an argument that an employee’s medical condition is not an ADA disability.
In the right case, however, faced with the right employee, the right performance issues, and the right claimed medical condition, an employer might be able to prevail that the employee’s medical condition does not rise to the level of a “disability.” The better (safer?) course of action, however, is to assume that the medical condition is an ADA-protected disability, and instead argue that the condition notwithstanding, an employer cannot offer any reasonable accommodation that will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of one job. You end up at the same place — a dismissal — albeit on safer legal footing. Regardless of how you get there, however, it is reassuring to see a court refuse to protect an alleged jerk employee on a claim that a disability caused the awful behavior.