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What does the ADA say about workplace misconduct that is attributable to an employee’s disability?


Americans with Disabilities Act: Introduction

The Americans with Disability Act (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the workplace. If an employee believes he or she has been discriminated against on the basis of disability, he or she must go through the administrative process with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Upon receipt of a Right to Sue issued by the EEOC, an employee can file a lawsuit in federal court for disability discrimination. These claims are analyzed using the McDonnell Douglas framework, which requires the employer offer evidence demonstrating that it had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for taking an adverse employment action against the employee. The employee then has to offer evidence demonstrating that the employer’s reasoning is false.

Initial burden: Prima facie case

Before the employer bears the burden of producing evidence that it took an adverse action against the employee for a legitimate reason, the employee must produce evidence demonstrating: (1) the existence of a disability or handicap; (2) that the employee is qualified, with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) that the employer took an adverse employment action against the employee because of his or her disability. After an employee produces evidence of these elements, the burden shifts to the employer.

The ADA permits employers to explain why it took an adverse employment action against an employee. For example, if an employee produces evidence showing that his employer terminated his employment because of his disability, the employer can then produce evidence demonstrating that it actually terminated the employee because he missed five (5) consecutive days of work. The burden would then shift back to the employee to demonstrate that this reasoning is flawed or incorrect. However, some employees have argued that the employee’s disability caused them to engage in the action, which resulted in the adverse employment action. So, following the same hypothetical as above, the employee would argue that he missed five (5) consecutive of work because he was seeking treatment for his disability, and thus, the employer fired him because of the disability. Courts have held that this argument will not stand against an employer’s legitimate, non-discriminatory reasoning.

Disability attributed to misconduct, which resulted in an adverse employment action

Courts both within and outside of the Eleventh Circuit have held that an employee may not assert his disability into the line of causation by demonstrating that the misconduct relied upon by the employer was caused by the disability. See Biggs v. State of FL Bd. of Regents, 1998 WL 1069456, at *5 (N.D. Fla. Oct. 28, 1998) (citing Palmer v. Circuit Court of Cook County, 117 F.3d 351, 352 (7th Cir. 1997); Williams v. Widnall, 79 F.3d 1003, 1006-07 (10th Cir. 1996); Newman v. Chevron U.S.A., 979 F. Supp. 1085, 1092 (S.D. Tex. 1997)) (“[t]hat the conduct which resulted in her termination may have been the result of, or caused by, her disability does not save [the] Plaintiff’s claims.”). Recently, the Northern District of Georgia stated, “[t]he law is well settled that the ADA is not violated when an employer discharges an individual based upon the employee’s misconduct, even if the misconduct is related to a disability.” Ray v. Kroger Co., 264 F. Supp. 2d 1221, 1228 (N.D. Ga. 2003); see also Foley v. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, LLC, 2013 WL 795108, at *8 (S.D. Fla. March 4, 2013). Accordingly, employees cannot successfully argue that their disability caused them to be fired because their misconduct is attributable to the disability.

If you feel your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act have been violated, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Michel | King. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 319-9724. We are here to serve you!

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