Employment Law Alert: Ninth Circuit Rejects Plaintiff’s ADHD Disability Claim

In Weaving v. City of Hilsboro, No. 12-35726, published August 15, 2014 (Weaving), a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that no reasonable jury could have found that a police officer was disabled under the American Disability Act (ADA) because his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) did not substantially limit either his ability to work or to interact with others.

Weaving (Plaintiff) was a City of Hillsboro (City) police officer. He was put on leave in 2009 after a subordinate filed a human resources complaint alleging Plaintiff excessively punished him for driving a marked police car through a surveillance area. While Plaintiff was on leave, he was diagnosed with adult ADHD. He provided the diagnosis to the City and requested a reasonable accommodation. The City conducted an independent medical evaluation whereby two doctors found Plaintiff fit for duty despite his ADHD diagnosis. Following the investigation into the subordinate’s complaint and the claimed disability, Plaintiff was terminated. At trial, the defense offered substantial evidence of severe interpersonal problems with other individuals within the department to support the termination decision. This evidence supported a pattern of hostile, threatening, and demeaning conduct toward subordinates and peers. The jury returned a general verdict in favor of Plaintiff. The City brought a motion for judgment as a matter of law based on insufficient evidence to support the verdict. The district court denied the motion, and the City appealed.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling on the City’s motion. Reviewing the evidence offered, the Ninth Circuit distinguished Plaintiff’s disability claim from those where the employee’s impairment essentially renders them “housebound.” In contrast, while acknowledging Plaintiff had interpersonal problems throughout his career, the court concluded Plaintiff’s interpersonal problems do not amount to a substantial impairment of his ability to interact with others within the meaning of the ADA. The court further noted that his ability to “get along” may have been limited by his ADHD, but this is not the same as a substantial limitation on his ability to “interact” with others.

Weaving emphasizes the difference between a “cantankerous person” and someone who has a substantial limitation regarding his/her ability to interact with others. In drawing this distinction, this decision affirms that not every impairment is a “disability.” Nevertheless, employers should remember that the duty to engage in the interactive process is broad, and every situation should be reviewed carefully before the employer takes adverse employment actions against ill-tempered employees.

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August 19, 2014