Weaving v. City of Hillsboro, No. 12-35726 (August 15, 2014): In a recent decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a police officer with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was not disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The court reversed the jury’s verdict in favor of the officer based on the lack of evidence that the officer’s ADHD substantially limited his ability to work and interact with others.

Matthew Weaving was hired by the City of Hillsboro Police Department in 2006 as a police officer. He was discharged from employment in 2009 due to severe interpersonal problems between Weaving and his coworkers at the police department. Weaving sued the police department alleging that the city discharged him because he is disabled and has an impairment that limited his ability to interact with others.

The case went to trial and the jury found in favor of Weaving. The city asked the trial court for a judgment as a matter of law on the basis that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict. The trial court denied the city’s request and awarded over $770,000 to Weaving. The city appealed.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, and held that a reasonable jury could not have found that Weaving’s ADHD substantially limited his ability to work or to interact with others. The court found that although Weaving may have had some impairment due to his ADHD, the impairment was not substantial and Weaving was not disabled within the meaning of the ADA. The court pointed to evidence that Weaving was recognized for his technical competence as a police officer, and that his interpersonal problems were almost exclusively with his peers or subordinates—not with his superiors or the public. Quoting from a previous Ninth Circuit decision, the court noted, “a ‘cantankerous person’ who has ‘[m]ere trouble getting along with coworkers’ is not disabled under the ADA.”

Practical Impact

The practical implications of this case will be better understood as the decision is applied by lower courts in the Ninth Circuit and as other Ninth Circuit panels follow or distinguish the holding. We should be even more reticent to draw too many conclusions from a split appellate decision (2-1) because the dissent emboldens both district and appellate judges to distinguish or disapprove of the decision. 

Nevertheless, the decision does offer hope for employers in one of the more difficult corners of disability discrimination law. First, it is fairly unusual for an appellate court to overturn a jury verdict finding a lack of “substantial evidence” to support the verdict on a factual issue. The decision can certainly be cited to suggest that a verdict based on even a mixed factual record is subject to reversal under the right circumstances. This gives employers a meaningful additional bite at the apple when a jury doesn’t see things an employer’s way.

Second, the decision significantly raises the bar for employees to establish a disability through a “substantial limitation” of the ability to work or to interact with others. The decision insists that the inability to work or to interact with others must be “severe” to qualify for treatment as a “disability.” So, even though the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 expressly intended to expand the definition of disability in these amorphous areas, Weaving demonstrates that courts may continue to have proper doubts about distinguishing between a difficult employee who deserves discipline and possibly discharge, and one who is disabled and deserves reasonable accommodation. 

But, importantly, employers would be wrong to conclude that they should not entertain reasonable accommodation requests from any worker claiming disability on these bases. While the decision undoubtedly helps the litigation cause, it does not offer a clear enough demarcation for human resources and other management decisionmakers to treat them any differently in the mandatory interactive process.

In fact, this decision demonstrates that the interactive process will improve the employer’s decisionmaking by uncovering additional facts that may prove helpful to the future defense of litigation that would not be available if the accommodation is not entertained.

Finally, the decision serves as an object lesson for just how challenging it is to be an employer faced with employees who admit, as part of their case, that they are substantially limited in their ability to work and interact with others. One’s intuition and experience would suggest that those with difficulty working or interacting with others might be appropriately counseled or disciplined for their professional shortcomings. But disability law is often counterintuitive, challenges our assumptions about best employment practices, and forces us to pause to make sure we understand its impact on particularly challenging employment situations.