Ever since the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) became law and substantially expanded the definition of “disability,” employers have been warned not to focus on whether an employee has a disability when evaluating reasonable accommodations. While that warning is valid, it is not absolute, and employers should not completely skip evaluating whether an employee has a disability. Even the 9th Circuit, where employees typically fare relatively well, has found that “cantankerous” and “ill-tempered” employees who are disciplined for treating coworkers and subordinates inappropriately do not have a disability that substantially limits the major life activity of interacting with others.
As a child, Matthew Weaving was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He stopped taking medication for the condition when he was an adolescent.
Weaving became a police officer, but he never disclosed his ADHD diagnosis because he believed the condition no longer affected him. His record as a police officer was littered with examples of “personality conflicts” and inappropriate communications, including complaints that he was “demeaning” and “intimidating.” In one instance, he sent an e-mail explaining that a coworker should “remain in the shallow end where you can splash around with the kids” while he remained “in the deep end.”
Weaving criticized a fellow officer’s language skills because the officer did not speak English as his first language. Ultimately, a subordinate filed a grievance against Weaving after he openly rebuked him over the radio. The police department placed Weaving on paid administrative leave pending an investigation.
While on leave, Weaving began to think that some of his interpersonal difficulties could be related to his ADHD. He met with a psychologist, who concluded that he suffered from adult ADHD. Weaving informed the police department of his diagnosis and requested an accommodation, including reinstatement to his position.
The investigation uncovered numerous examples of inappropriate communications by Weaving, and the police department concluded that he did not possess the emotional intelligence to successfully work in a team environment. His employment was ultimately terminated.
Weaving sued the police department, claiming he was fired because he had a disability or the department regarded him as disabled. A jury agreed, finding that he was disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and awarding him more than $750,000. The police department appealed.
Being ‘cantankerous’ and ‘ill-tempered’ is not a disability
Unlike other federal appeals courts, the 9th Circuit considers the ability to “interact with others” a major life activity under the ADAAA. However, the 9th Circuit explained that an individual is substantially limited in that ability only if his limitations are truly substantial. For example, the court previously found that plaintiffs who were so severely impaired in their ability to interact with others that they were “essentially housebound” and “barely functional” met the ADA’s definition of disability.
The 9th Circuit took a dim view of Weaving’s asserted disability. The court drew a distinction between an individual’s ability to interact with others and his ability to “get along” with others. The latter is not a major life activity. The court found it particularly interesting that Weaving’s interpersonal problems were almost exclusively with his peers and subordinates, not his supervisors.
The 9th Circuit held that an individual who is able to communicate with others is not substantially limited in his ability to interact with others within the meaning of the ADA even though his communications may be offensive, inappropriate, ineffective, or unsuccessful at times. To hold otherwise, the court explained, would expose employers to potential ADA liability for taking action against “ill-tempered employees who create a hostile workplace environment for their colleagues.” The 9th Circuit reversed the jury’s verdict.
Many employers have received accommodation requests in which an employee claims a medical impairment substantially limits his ability to interact with others, including working with coworkers or supervisors. While employers must always fully evaluate accommodation requests, determining whether an employee actually has a disability that substantially limits his ability to interact with others must be part of the analysis. When in doubt, because of the ADAAA’s significant expansion of the definition of disability, most employers err on the side of caution and consider granting the accommodation.
However, as the 9th Circuit held, being a “cantankerous person” who has “trouble getting along with coworkers” is not an ADA-qualifying disability. This case is a good reminder not to skip the first step in the reasonable accommodation analysis—determining whether the employee has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity.