Police Officer with ADHD has No ADA Disability: Ninth Circuit

In Weaving v. City of Hillsboro, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's judgment after a jury trial which found that a police officer with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) suffered from a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Despite having the diagnosed condition of ADHD, the officer had a history of strong work performance and appropriate interaction with superiors. The Ninth Circuit held that the officer's ADHD was not a disability because it did not substantially limit his major life activities of working or interacting with others.

Practical Law Labor & Employment

On August 15, 2014, in Weaving v. City of Hillsboro, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court's judgment after a jury trial which found that a police officer with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) suffered from a disability under the ADA. Despite having the diagnosed condition of ADHD, the officer had a history of strong work performance and appropriate interaction with superiors. The Ninth Circuit held that the officer's ADHD was not a disability because it did not substantially limit his major life activities of working or interacting with others. (12-35726, 2014 WL 3973411 (9th Cir. Aug. 15, 2014).)

 

Background

Matthew Weaving was diagnosed with ADHD as a child. He appeared to outgrow the condition, but had interpersonal problems throughout his teenage years. In 1995, Weaving joined the Beaverton Police Department (BPD). He passed mental and physical tests, and did not notify the BPD of his history with ADHD, as he thought it no longer affected him. Weaving encountered periodic personality conflicts at BPD, but performed well, being placed on interagency teams and an FBI task force.

In 2006, Weaving joined the Hillsboro Police Department (HPD). He disclosed his prior personal conflicts at BPD and his history of ADHD, noting that he did not believe it still affected him. Weaving received positive professional evaluations and was promoted to sergeant after passing a psychological leadership evaluation. However, Weaving continued to have personality conflicts with co-workers. In April 2009, Weaving was placed on administrative leave pending investigation of an officer's grievance filed in response to verbal criticism by Weaving. While on leave, it became apparent to Weaving that his problems may be the result of his ADHD. A psychologist diagnosed Weaving with adult ADHD. Weaving wrote a letter to the HPD noting the doctor's diagnosis and requesting necessary reasonable accommodations for his condition, including reinstatement.

In June 2009, the grievance investigation found that Weaving had created a hostile work environment and that he did not possess the emotional intelligence to work in a team environment. An independent medical evaluation deemed Weaving fit for duty. In November 2009, Weaving received a letter stating the HPD's intention to terminate his employment. After a hearing, Weaving was fired, effective December 11, 2009.

Weaving sued the City of Hillsboro under the ADA, alleging that:

  • The city fired him because of his impairment which limited his ability to work or interact with others.

  • The city fired him because it regarded him as disabled.

The case was tried to a jury, which was instructed that Weaving was disabled if he had mental impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities, including:

  • Working.

  • Interacting with others.

  • Communicating.

The jury returned a verdict for Weaving, finding that he had proven he was disabled under the ADA, but that he had not proven that he was regarded as disabled under the ADA. The district court awarded Weaving back pay and front pay, but refused to reinstate him to the HPD. The city filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law based on insufficient evidence to support the verdict. The district court denied the motion. The city appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

 

Outcome

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of the city's motion for judgment as a matter of law, and remanded the case. The Ninth Circuit held that a jury could not reasonably have concluded that Weaving's ADHD substantially limited his ability to work or interact with others.

In reaching the conclusion that a jury could not reasonably have concluded that Weaving's ADHD substantially limited his ability to work, the Ninth Circuit found that:

  • The record did not contain evidence that Weaving was limited in his ability to work compared to most people in the general population.

  • Weaving was shown to be a skilled police officer who was selected for high-level assignments and recognized for his knowledge and competence.

  • Weaving contends that his inability to work stems from his impairments concerning his interaction with others, which is a separate life activity to be assessed.

In reaching the conclusion that a jury could not reasonably have concluded that Weaving's ADHD substantially limited his ability to interact with others, the Ninth Circuit found that:

  • A limited ability to get along with others (as in Weaving's situation) is not the same as a substantial limitation on the ability to interact with others within the meaning of the ADA.

  • The present situation differs from McAlindin v. County of San Diego, where the Ninth Circuit held that:

    • interacting with others is a major life activity;

    • evidence of the plaintiff's panic attacks and communicative paralysis was sufficiently severe to be a limitation of the ability to interact with others; and

    • not every cantankerous person will be deemed substantially limited in a major life activity.

    (192 F.3d 1226, 1235-1236 (9th Cir. 1999).)

  • Deeming Weaving disabled in this matter would expose to future liability any employer who takes adverse employment action against a difficult employee who creates a hostile work environment.

The dissenting opinion asserts that the majority:

  • Failed to follow Ninth Circuit precedent laid out in McAlindin when determining that Weaving's condition was not a disability.

  • Took on the role of jury and medical expert in determining that Weaving was not disabled.

The dissent argues that the majority should have recognized Weaving's ADHD as substantially limiting his ability to interact with others because:

  • Weaving had interaction problems with numerous co-workers at BPD and HPD, not just with peers and subordinates, as argued by majority.

  • Weaving's superior stated at trial that he was biased against Weaving, and that his grievance investigation contained inaccuracies.

  • Despite a finding that Weaving was fit for duty, the Deputy Police Chief based his decision to terminate Weaving's employment on Weaving's deficient emotional intelligence.

  • Weaving's physician testified that there is a big difference between someone with ADHD and someone who is a jerk.

  • Weaving's physician testified that Weaving displayed one of the clearest examples of ADHD he had seen in 25 years of practice.

  • The city's expert testified, based on a file review and without actually examining Weaving, that Weaving did not have ADHD.

The dissent notes that since Weaving should have prevailed on his claim that ADHD substantially limited his ability to interact with others, it does not matter if he failed to establish that he also had a work impairment.

 

Practical Implications

This decision may have significant effects on how employers deal with difficult employees concerning reasonable accommodation decisions, discipline or termination. The majority agreed with Ninth Circuit precedent that interaction with others is a major life activity that, if substantially limited, could provide evidence of a disability protected by the ADA. However, it limited the reach of what comes under the ADA's protection. The Ninth Circuit's holding that the employee's condition in this case did not rise to the level of disability is controversial, given that it reverses the decision of a jury and sidesteps the medical opinions provided.

In determining whether someone is substantially limited in interacting with others, the majority draws a line between those people who have an inability to engage in normal social interactions and those who just do not get along with co-workers. The majority argued that a different holding in this case would open employers to potential liability each time they take an adverse employment action concerning a hostile employee. As the dissent notes, employers are left in the complicated position of having to determine whether an individual, who has been properly diagnosed with ADHD, should be deemed disabled or just a jerk.

 
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