Going against the post-Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) trend of expansive interpretation of disability, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s ruling in favor of Matthew Weaving, a police officer with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), because it determined Weaving was not disabled.
Weaving sued the Hillsboro Police Department (HPD) alleging disability discrimination after HPD terminated him for recurring interpersonal problems with fellow employees, including a final, substantiated complaint of “inappropriately harsh and bullying behavior.” At trial, Weaving claimed his behavior was the result of ADHD, which he said was a disability because it substantially limited him in the major life activities of working and interacting with others. The trial court agreed, and awarded him over $500,000 in damages.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that even in light of the ADAAA’s instruction that the definition of disability be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals, Weaving was not disabled. Specifically, the Ninth Circuit disagreed that Weaving was substantially limited in the major life activities of working and interacting with others. The court cited Weaving’s numerous successes in his law enforcement career in support of its decision that Weaving was not substantially limited in the major life activity of working—either in his field, a broad range of jobs, or a class of jobs.
Next, the court examined whether Weaving was substantially limited in the major life activity of interacting with others. It conceded that Weaving had recurring interpersonal problems throughout his professional life, and that this had, at times, negatively impacted his career leading to his eventual termination of employment from HPD. The court drew a distinction, however, between Weaving’s inability to get along with some of his co-workers and the requirement under the ADA that he be substantially limited in his ability to interact with others. The court noted, “Weaving was able to engage in normal social interactions. His interpersonal problems existed almost exclusively in his interactions with his peers and subordinates. He had little, if any, difficulty comporting himself appropriately with his supervisors.” Thus, the court held Weaving was not substantially limited in the major life activity of interacting with others (and therefore not disabled under the ADA), even though frequently his communication style was offensive, inappropriate, and ineffective.
Although the ADAAA expanded the definition of disability, not all impairments will qualify as disabilities. Employers must always engage in an individualized assessment of the facts on a case-by-case basis before taking any action related to an ADA claim.