- JDKD Enterprises, a limited partnership that owns and operates multiple McDonald’s restaurants in New Jersey, will pay $100,000 to settle U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission allegations it discriminated against a grill cook with autism spectrum disorder, the agency announced Dec. 16 (EEOC v. JDKD Enterprises, No. 21-cv-16441 (D. N.J. Sept. 2, 2021)).
- The grill cook had worked for McDonald’s since 1981, according to the complaint. In 2008, he began working at the Deptford, New Jersey, location. JDKD Enterprises assumed ownership of the location in 2018. Two months later, while working, the employee became agitated and raised his voice, a common side effect of his disability, the complaint alleged. “Defendant did not engage in a good faith interactive process to address [the plaintiff]’s autism spectrum disorder or its manifestations, or to determine whether a reasonable accommodation was available,” the complaint said, but rather fired him the same day.
- “The [Americans with Disabilities Act] protects people with autism spectrum disorder, and the EEOC is absolutely committed to aggressively enforcing the ADA requirement that employers reasonably accommodate their workers with disabilities absent undue hardship,” Debra Lawrence, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Philadelphia district office, said in an agency statement.
This case raises an interesting question that the legal system has been grappling with for years: Does behavior that stems from a disability require reasonable accommodation? The answer is not always cut and dried.
In one case from 2007, for example, a former worker at dialysis services company DaVita, Inc., sued her employer following her termination. The employee, who had disclosed a bipolar disorder diagnosis and its associated symptoms, including mood swings, alleged she was discriminated against on account of her disability. DaVita fired the employee after an emotional outburst that included crying, throwing documents, a “flourish of several profanities,” and kicking and throwing things, according to a description of the case from Dorsey and Whitney LLP.
While a jury sided with DaVita, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the plaintiff on appeal, arguing that the jury should have been instructed that they could attribute behavior to the disability. This decision by the court does not represent the consensus, however; as Dorsey and Whitney noted, “the Court’s interpretation of the ADA is unprecedented in other federal Circuit Courts of Appeals, some of which have even issued conflicting decisions in the past.”
In a 2015 decision, Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc., the 9th Circuit agreed with a lower court that an employee with depression was not protected by the ADA after he made credible threats of violence against his co-workers. The court held that the worker was not a “qualified individual” because “[a]n employee whose stress leads to serious and credible threats to kill his co-workers is not qualified to work for the employer regardless of why he makes those threats.”
For extreme behavior — such as issuing death threats — employers appear within their rights to discipline or terminate; according to law firm Sebris Busto James, however, “For misconduct that is less extreme, employers should carefully consider whether the misconduct shows that the employee cannot perform the essential functions of the job, even with an accommodation.”