Police Officer with ADHD Not Protected by Americans with Disabilities Act

A recent decision by the Ninth Circuit limited the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when a person has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Pursuant to the Act, a person has a disability that falls within the terms of the ADA if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits” the person’s ability to engage in a major life activity, has a record of the physical or mental impairment, or is perceived as having a physical or mental impairment that falls under the umbrella of the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). Although the ADA is intended to provide protections for people with mental impairments, the Ninth Circuit determined that the facts of this case did not warrant the application of the Act’s provisions.

Facts of the Case

In Weaving v. City of Hillsboro, 763 F.3d 1106 (2014), a police officer who had been placed on paid leave after multiple conflicts with his co-workers requested all reasonable accommodations because he had been diagnosed with adult ADHD. After he was terminated from his employment, Weaving brought suit against the City of Hillsboro for violating the provisions of the ADA, alleging that his ADHD substantially impacted his ability to interact with others, which has been found to be a major life activity by the Ninth Circuit, as well as work.

Weaving was a law enforcement officer who eventually became employed with the City of Hillsboro in 2006. He had worked his way up from a police officer to a detective, so there was a history of successful employment. Weaving had been diagnosed with ADHD as a child. However, around the age of 12 years, Weaving had voluntarily stopped taking his medication in the belief that he no longer needed it to manage the symptoms of ADHD. When Weaving joined the City of Hillsboro, he did not disclose that he had been diagnosed with ADHD as a child because he believed that he no longer was affected by the symptoms of the condition. In the three years that he worked for the Hillsboro Police Department, Weaving had a documented history of not getting along with his co-workers. The complaints about Weaving’s behavior included allegations that he was patronizing and demeaning to those with whom he worked, as well as expressing himself through sarcasm.

In 2009, Weaving was placed on administrative leave after accusations of bullying were leveled against him. While Weaving was out on paid leave, he received a diagnosis of adult ADHD and his treating physician indicated that the ADHD contributed to Weaving’s difficulties in interacting with his co-workers. Weaving notified the Hillsboro Police Department about his diagnosis. After an investigation into the allegations, the Hillsboro Police Department determined that Weaving had fostered an environment of hostility and did not possess the “emotional intelligence” necessary to work with a team of police officers and terminated Weaving’s employment. Weaving claimed that the department terminated his employment after he disclosed his ADHD diagnosis and requested accommodations.

Legal Decision

In making his arguments at the trial court level, Weaving alleged that his ADHD substantially limited his ability to work and interact with others, which has been found to be major life activities under the ADA. The jury at the trial court level held that Weaving was terminated improperly and he should have been protected by the ADA. Weaving was awarded a substantial verdict, in excess of $500,000.00, and the City of Hillsboro appealed the verdict.

In 2009, there were amendments to the ADA, which lowered the hurdle for a plaintiff to demonstrate that he or she was substantially limited in participating in major life activities as the result of a physical or mental impairment. Despite the relaxation of the standards, the Ninth Circuit held that Weaving failed to demonstrate how his ADHD did either of the following:

  • Substantially limited his ability to work, when compared to the general population of workers. In fact, there was ample evidence presented of Weaving’s general competence from performance reviews and his advancement in his career; or
  • Substantially limited his ability to interact with others in a non-confrontational manner. The ability to interact with others has been determined to be a major life activity under the provisions of the ADA. However, the court determined that the jury could not have found that Weaving’s ADHD resulted in a substantial obstacle to Weaving’s interactions with others. The court held that Weaving was able to interact normally in professional and social situations with his supervisors. Basically, the court determined that Weaving’s failure to play nice with others, although potentially caused by his ADHD, did not warrant protection under the ADA because it was not the same thing as having an impairment that substantially impacted his ability to interact with others.

Although the Ninth Circuit did limit the breadth of the ADA under these circumstances, thereby demonstrating that the relaxed standards of the 2009 amendments to the ADA do not impose blanket protections, there are cases where an individual’s ADHD will be held to substantially impact his ability to interact with others. Therefore, employers will need to exercise caution when making decisions about how to treat employees who have disclosed a diagnosis of ADHD or other mental or physical impairments.

If you are an employee or employer facing issues arising under the ADA, contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside, and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.