September 5, 2014
A threshold question in connection Americans with Disabilities Act cases is whether an individual has a “disability”: no disability means no standing to sue for disability discrimination. The ADA defines disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities.” Prior to being amended by Congress in 2008 to relax the standard for determining whether an individual was substantially limited in a major life activity, it was not unusual for a case to be dismissed based on a finding that the claimant was not an individual with a disability.
While the ADA Amendments Act made such dismissals less common, the Ninth Circuit recently reminded us that there are times when an impairment or condition will not be found to be a “disability” under the ADA. In Weaving v. City of Hillsboro, a divided three-judge panel voted to reverse a district court’s entry of judgment after a jury had found that a police officer with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder had been subject to unlawful disability discrimination. Despite having been diagnosed with ADHD, the appellate court said that the officer had a history of strong work performance and appropriate interaction with superiors. For that reason, the Ninth Circuit held that the officer's ADHD did not substantially limit him in the major life activities of working or interacting with others and, therefore, was not a disability.
The Underlying Facts
The Hillsboro Police Department hired Matthew Weaving in 2006 and promoted him to sergeant in 2007. According to the opinion, Mr. Weaving had been diagnosed with ADHD as a child, but believed he had outgrown it. Subsequent to his promotion, Mr. Weaving’s supervisors began to take note of his interpersonal difficulties with others in the department, including referring to other officers in a derogatory fashion.
In March 2009, Mr. Weaving issued a several-page disciplinary letter to a subordinate officer who believed the letter was a disproportionate response to what he had done. The subordinate filed a grievance against him and in April 2009 the City placed Mr. Weaving on paid administrative leave pending investigation of the grievance.
While on paid administrative leave, Mr. Weaving sought a mental-health evaluation, which concluded that some of his interpersonal difficulties had been caused by his continuing ADHD. He reported this to the police chief, asking for both accommodation and reinstatement. Shortly thereafter, the grievance investigation found that Mr. Weaving had "fostered a hostile work environment for his subordinates and peers," was "tyrannical, unapproachable, non-communicative, belittling, demeaning, threatening, intimidating, arrogant and vindictive.”
As a result, the HPD terminated Mr. Weaving from employment. He filed a lawsuit claiming the City had discriminated against him in violation of the ADA. On the threshold issue of disability, Mr. Weaving alleged that he had a disability because his ADHD substantially limited his major life activities of working and interacting with others. Further, he alleged that the HPD fired him after he disclosed his ADHD diagnosis. A jury agreed with Mr. Weaving and awarded him over half a million dollars in compensatory, back pay, and front pay damages, plus attorney's fees. The City appealed.
The Holding On Appeal
The Ninth Circuit reversed, concluding that the jury could not have reasonably found that ADHD substantially limited Mr. Weaving’s ability to work or interact with others. Regarding the major life activity of working, the appellate court noted the absence of evidence that his ADHD affected his ability to work, as well as the strong evidence of his technical competence as a police officer. Regarding the major life activity of interacting with others, the panel held that Mr. Weaving’s condition may have limited his ability to get along with others, but that is not the same as a substantial limitation on the ability to interact with others. Cantankerous behavior does not equate to the required substantial limitation. "To hold otherwise," the court reasoned, "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."
This case notwithstanding, employers should not assume that the courts are going to dismiss cases more frequently based on a finding that the claimant is not an individual with a disability the ADA. While the Weaving case illustrates that even under the amended ADA, not every physical or mental impairment amounts to a "disability," it does not mean that ADHD is never a disability under the ADA or need never be accommodated in appropriate circumstances. This decision merely underscores that the defense of “not disabled” is still one that should be considered in litigation.
Bullard Law will continue to track and report on developments relating to this case and more generally to the ADA, disability discrimination, and reasonable accommodation . Please feel free to contact us anytime with questions about these matters or regarding any other labor, employment, or benefits issues of interest or concern to you.