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Jerks, Introverts and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Weaving v. City of Hillsboro

The ability of employers to follow the law – and of judges to enforce it – depends on clearly defined standards of responsibility and conduct. Vaguely or otherwise poorly stated rules can lead to inconsistent outcomes in very similar factual situations. This danger of arbitrary, unpredictable consequences is perhaps no better illustrated than in the recent struggles of three appeals judges to define the terms of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in Weaving v. City of Hillsboro (9th Circuit, D.C. No. 3:10-cv-01432-HZ, August 15, 2014).

The ADA forbids workplace discrimination against a “qualified individual on the basis of disability.” “Qualified individual” means a person who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires. Under the ADA, a “disability” is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” with “a record of such an impairment,” or who is “regarded as having such an impairment.” The ADA provides examples of such major life activities, including “caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and working.”

The challenge in the Weaving case appeal was whether the ADA’s protections should extend to an individual terminated over recurring interpersonal problems with co-workers that he and testifying mental health practitioners attributed to so-called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Two of the three appeals judges concluded that Officer Weaving’s sometimes gruff, offensive manner – even if the supposed result of a purported ADHD condition – did not deserve ADA protection because his behavior evidenced only an inability “to get along with others,” not a major life activity. The third judge disagreed, contending that Weaving’s periodically boorish behavior amounted to a substantial impairment of the ADA-protected major life activity of “interacting with others.”

While employers might take heart in the immediate result of the Weaving case, that (to use the court’s term) “jerks” do not deserve ADA protection, the decision really should give neither workers nor managers comfort since it leaves the dividing line about as clear as mud between: a) disruptive conduct from which an employer can protect its workforce by suspension or termination of the perpetrator; and b) perhaps offensive but protected behavior stemming from a disability that a business must seek to reasonably accommodate.

The City of Hillsboro, Oregon terminated Matthew Weaving from its police force in late 2009, in part based on the report of his superior that Weaving had created a hostile work environment for his junior officers and peers for actions described as “tyrannical, unapproachable, non-communicative, belittling, demeaning, threatening, intimidating, arrogant, and vindictive.” Weaving at page 10.

Officer Weaving then sued the City for ADA discrimination, alleging that he deserved protection because his diagnosed ADHD condition substantially limited his major life activity of “interacting with others.” The City appealed after a jury awarded Officer Weaving well over $600,000 in damages and over $139,000 in attorney fees. Weaving at page 11.

Weaving contended his situation was similar to the systems analyst who was able to maintain an ADA case in McAlindin v. County of San Diego (9th Cir., 1999) 192 F.3d 1226. There, Mr. McAlindin was able to convince two out of three appeals judges that his claimed panic attacks, “fear reaction,” and “communicative paralysis” created a substantial limitation on his major life activity of interacting with others. 192 F.3d at 1235-1236. Weaving also argued he was entitled to ADA protection just as an equipment operator had been in Head v. Glacier Northwest (9th Cir., 2005) 413 F.3d 1053. There, Mr. Head convinced the appeals court that the ADA could protect him from discrimination since his avoidance of crowds and large family gatherings, and his shutting himself away in his house for weeks – all purportedly the result of a diagnosed “bipolar” mental disorder – constituted a substantial limitation on his major life activity of interacting with others. 413 F.3d at 1060-1061.

Yet, two of the three of the judges in Officer Weaving’s appeal found his situation more akin to another “bipolar”-afflicted employee, this time an electric-guitar assembler in Jacques v. DiMarzio, Inc. (2nd Cir. 2004) 386 F.3d 192. According to the lower court’s record, Ms. Jacques was a “problem employee,” prone to confrontations with co-workers, intolerance of ethnic minorities in the production department, and emotional problems dealing with supervisory staff. Ms. Jacques’s supervisors had found her the “most confrontational person we ever employed,” with supervisors and coworkers regarding her as “intimidating and mercurial” and feeling obliged to treat her with “kid gloves.” 386 F.3d at 197-198.

Taking the cue from the Jacques case, the majority in Weaving found the officer was not eligible for ADA protection for being a cantankerous person with mere trouble getting along with coworkers. In contrast to the plaintiffs in the McAlindin and Head cases, Officer Weaving did not shut himself away, unable at times to interact with others at all. While able to engage in normal social interactions, “his interpersonal problems existed almost exclusively in his interactions with his peers and subordinates.” Weaving at page 17. “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.” Weaving at page 18.

Circuit Judge Callahan, the third judge in Weaving, disagreed sharply with the other two. Citing the report of the treating psychologist, she emphasized that Officer Weaving was apparently unable to “self-regulate” certain symptoms of his supposed ADHD condition, including impulsiveness, “not seeming to listen when spoken to, … interrupting others, … difficulty waiting his turn, blurting out comments without having emotional intelligence, [and lack of] awareness of the effect that that communication would have on his other workers at the police department.” Weaving at page 23. Judge Callahan thus contended that Officer Weaving “was well beyond being merely cantankerous or troublesome. To the contrary, he had problems in his interactions with just about everyone throughout his career in law enforcement.” Judge Callahan thus reasoned that Weaving was substantially limited in his ability to interact with others and was not just a cranky, defiant bully undeserving of ADA protection. Weaving at page 32.

The Weaving decision demonstrates the highly subjective element that can drive the discussion on what is and what is not a protectable mental disability under the ADA. In the face of disruptive conduct as displayed by Officer Weaving, management must base any disciplinary decisions on the observable and documented negative effects that such angry, demeaning and bullying behavior has on the morale and productivity of the workers on the receiving end of such conduct. Job descriptions that establish the abilities to engage in effective, constructive communication and to work in efficient coordination with supervisors, coworkers and juniors will also promote the proper objective expectations for a worker at every company position.

For further information and assistance on workplace disability issues, contact any of our office’s attorneys, Tim Bowles, Cindy Bamforth or Helena Kobrin.
Additional references:
Disability and Leave of Absence Policies, Keeping Up with Changing Employment Laws”

Say “ADAAAAHHH” – More People to be Protected Under Federal Workplace Disability Law”

Disability Employment, Employing Big Eaters, High Rollers and Voyeurs, Unusual Mental Disability Claims on the Horizon?