Authors: Betty S.W. Graumlich and Jordan Ellis
On Tuesday August 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a claim for disability discrimination, where the plaintiff was deemed psychologically unfit for duty and subsequently had his employment terminated. The Third Circuit’s decision provides guidance for employers regarding the extent of their obligations to accommodate employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
In McNelis v. Pennsylvania Power & Light Co., No. 16-3883 (3d Cir., Aug. 15, 2017), the plaintiff, an armed security guard for a nuclear power plant, sued his former employer for disability discrimination following his termination. McNelis had experienced mental health problems, including extreme paranoia. His behavior prompted a fitness-for-duty evaluation by an independent psychologist, which was required under PPL policy, as well as under regulations promulgated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The psychologist determined that McNelis was unfit for duty, and his employment was terminated shortly thereafter.
The court held that McNelis’ termination did not violate the ADA. As the court explained, McNelis was not qualified for the position because he not able to perform the essential functions of his job; namely, he could not demonstrate that he was fit for duty or could not maintain an unescorted security clearance. According to Judge Hardiman, who issued the opinion on behalf of the panel, the fact that federal regulations may prohibit an individual who is psychologically unfit for duty from holding a job that implicates public welfare is a deliberate and “unremarkable” policy judgment that does not violate the ADA. The court further explained in a footnote that compliance with legally mandated job requirements is a valid defense to claims brought under the ADA.
The court’s decision serves as a reminder for employers to ensure that their policies are aligned with all relevant legal requirements, as well as with public safety considerations, and that job descriptions accurately reflect the essential functions associated with each position.
Betty S.W. Graumlich is the Global Practice Group Leader for Reed Smith’s Labor & Employment practice and serves on the Firm’s Executive Committee. Jordan Ellis is an associate in the firm’s Labor & Employment practice. He represents employers in federal and state courts and before administrative agencies in a broad range of employment matters. For more information on developments in this area, please contact Betty Graumlich at BGraumlich@reedsmith.com or Jordan Ellis at JEllis@reedsmith.com.