Can you be terminated for being a jerk at work?

sarah ewingSince the 2008 ADA amendments, the ADA seems to get bigger and bigger as more impairments are given protection. The Ninth Circuit recently overturned a District Court jury verdict. This is a big deal in the legal world. Overturning a jury verdict is very unusual, especially one finding an employer liable for an ADA violation. So, what happened? First, the facts.

Weaving was a police officer for the City of Hillsboro with over ten years experience. Though Weaving was a skilled officer, his co-workers and subordinates often referred to him as abrasive, disgruntled, belittling, intimidating and arrogant. His supervisors were aware of Weaving’s lack of interpersonal skills. A subordinate filed a grievance against Weaving when Weaving issued a response that was disproportionate to the violation. The City placed him on administrative leave and conducted a thorough investigation into Weaving’s employment.

Around the same time, Weaving referred himself to a psychologist, feeling his childhood ADHD could have been the cause of his interpersonal skills. The psychologist concluded Weaving suffered from adult ADHD and sent a letter to the Department and requested a reasonable accommodation for the ADHD.

The City’s investigation exposed Weaving’s broken relationships with his peers and subordinates, being described as tyrannical, demeaning, threatening, and vindictive. Based on the investigation, the City terminated Weaving. Weaving sued the City under the ADA, alleging he was fired because he had an impairment (ADHD) that limited his ability to work or interact with others. The jury found the City had violated the ADA.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court majority reversed. Dissenting Judge Callahan aptly summarizes the majority’s position: “Weaving isn’t disabled, he’s just a jerk.” First, the Court examined whether Weaving’s ADHA substantially limited him working, which is considered a major life activity. The Court stated when determining whether an impairment is substantially limiting, it requires an individualized assessment. Here, Weaving’s ADHD did not impair his ability to work as a police officer. As his supervisor testified to, Weaving was a skilled police officer and fit for duty. Therefore, no disability impaired his ability to work.

Next, the Court considered whether Weaving’s impairment substantially limited his ability to interact with others. The Court voiced hesitancy in qualifying “interaction with others” as a major life activity. The Court distinguished this case with previous cases where employees were found substantially limited in interacting with others. In the distinguishing cases, the employee had panic attacks leaving the house and trouble functioning in public. Though ADHD might have limited Weaving’s ability to get along with others, this was not the same as an inability to interact with others.

How does this case impact you? Are you now free to fire every jerk you work with? No! As the Court stated, determining whether an impairment is substantially limiting requires an individualized assessment. This means each case needs to be evaluated. Document your assessment. Because this issue is more of a legal question that often overlaps with other leave laws, I recommend seeking your attorney’s legal opinion. If you have any questions about terminating your jerk employee or other employment concerns, please contact me at sewing@sbhlegal.com