- A nuclear power plant did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it fired an armed security guard over alcohol use and alleged "paranoid thoughts," a federal appeals court has ruled (McNelis v. Pennsylvania Power and Light Company, No. 16-3883 (3rd Cir., Aug. 15, 2017)).
- When the guard’s friend and co-worker brought these issues to the employer’s attention, the plant sent him for a fitness-for-duty evaluation. A psychologist recommended that he be removed from duty and the plant immediately fired him. The guard sued, alleging that the employer violated the ADA because it believed that he had disabilities and then fired him because of those impairments.
- The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, said that it didn't matter whether the plant believed that the guard's alcohol use and mental health impairments rose to the level of "disability" under the law. Instead, he had no ADA claim because he couldn’t perform one of the essential functions of his job: complying with federal safety regulations that require nuclear power plant employees to be unimpaired.
The 3rd Circuit says it is the first appeals court to address the interplay of the ADA and these particular Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulations but that its opinion is in line with other courts that have considered U.S. Department of Transportation safety requirements.
The employee argued that deferring to NRC regs would diminish the ADA’s protections. The court, however, said that NRC regulations “do not exempt individuals with disabilities, and indeed, it would be strangely ineffective for them to do so; the fact that a certain trait or behavior coincides with a recognized disability does not make it any less dangerous to the public.”
In fact, NRC regulations explicitly require nuclear plants to screen for traits and behaviors in a manner that in other contexts may violate the ADA, the court continued. “And the premise that the ADA applies differently to professions that implicate the public welfare is as essential as it is unremarkable.”
Employers generally must provide accommodations to workers with disabilities, including those with alcoholism. (Employers do not, however, have to excuse workers who come to work under the influence of alcohol. Instead, accommodations could include time off for meetings or treatment, for example.)
On the other hand, the ADA doesn’t require an employer to ignore a “direct threat” to health or safety in the workplace, even if its industry isn’t subject to special federal safety regulations. That standard is a difficult one to meet, but has been successfully used as a defense in cases involving safety-sensitive jobs and even when an employee only posed a threat to himself.