Cantankerous employees beware! Being a jerk is not a disability and, at least according to the Ninth Circuit in Weaving v. City of Hillsboro, blaming bad behavior on a physical or mental impairment does not guarantee protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").
Matthew Weaving was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, but stopped exhibiting symptoms at the age of 12 and was taken off of his ADHD medication. His interpersonal problems continued through adolescence and into adulthood. Weaving pursued a career as a police officer and eventually joined the Hillsboro (Oregon) Police Department in 2006. His relationship with subordinates and peers was strained. Co-workers complained that he often was demeaning and derogatory. Following a subordinate’s complaint about Weaving in 2009, the Police Department placed him on leave pending investigation.
While on leave, Weaving decided that some of his interpersonal difficulties might have been due to ADHD so he sought a mental health evaluation. The psychologist concluded that Weaving had adult ADHD and sent a letter to the police department explaining his diagnosis. The next day, Weaving sent a letter informing his employer about the diagnosis and requesting “all reasonable accommodations.”
A few weeks later, the police department concluded its investigation, finding that Weaving had created and fostered a “hostile work environment for his subordinates and peers,” noting that they described him as “tyrannical, unapproachable, non-communicative, belittling, demeaning, threatening, intimidating, arrogant and vindictive.” Following a fitness for duty examination in which two doctors found Weaving fit for duty despite his ADHD diagnosis, the police department terminated Weaving’s employment.
Weaving sued under the ADA claiming that the police department fired him because of his disability. The case went to trial and the jury returned a verdict in Weaving’s favor finding that he terminated because of his disability. The jury awarded total damages, including attorney’s fees, of over $700,000.
In a 2-1 decision, the Ninth Circuit reversed based on its finding that Weaving’s inability to get along with others was not a disability under the ADA. The court distinguished this from cases holding that an inability to interact with others can be a disability: “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 work environment for their colleagues.” (What might strike employers as a proper outcome, Weaver’s lawyer called “a bunch of baloney.” Just a matter of perspective, I suppose.)
This case demonstrates that even under the expanded definition of “disability” under the 2008 Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act ("ADAAA"), there are limits, at least under the right circumstances. While typically it is better for employers to simply assume the medical condition is a disability and argue that the employee cannot perform the essential functions of the job even with a reasonable accommodation—how exactly do you accommodate “tyrannical” conduct?—Weaving demonstrates that there still is a limit to what is a "disability" under the ADA.