In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (Fifth Circuit) upheld an earlier district court’s ruling that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows employers to discipline employees for behavior caused by a medical condition. Whereas employment decisions based on a disability itself remain illegal, the Fifth Circuit decided that the ADA does not protect disability-caused behavior that violates an employer’s code of conduct. This decision isn’t the first time a federal appellate court has interpreted the ADA this year. In May, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that temporary conditions can be disabilities under the ADA.

Background of the Case

A former employee (the plaintiff) of NextGen Healthcare, Inc. attended a sales conference for her employer in 2018. That evening, the plaintiff knocked on the door of her male coworker’s room in the same hotel. The plaintiff entered the coworker’s room, climbed into his bed, and became unresponsive.

The coworker reported the incident to the company’s human resource department. Subsequently, the human resources department placed the plaintiff on a paid leave of absence. The plaintiff’s medical provider later diagnosed her with somnambulism, or “sleepwalking disorder.” The diagnosis served as a basis for her argument that a medical condition had caused the behavior. However, NextGen Healthcare Inc. had already terminated her employment. The plaintiff sued her employer in a district court, alleging the employer violated her rights under the ADA and the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA).

Disability Protections Under the ADA

Signed into law in 1990, the ADA is a federal law that protects the civil rights of individuals with disabilities. The ADA forbids discrimination in the workplace and other sectors of society against people living with disabilities. Covered individuals may show they have a disability in one of three ways:

  • they have a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (walking, talking, seeing, learning, etc.)
  • a person has a history of disability (for example, cancer that is in remission)
  • this person is subject to an adverse employment action, and their impairment is not transitory or minor

Furthermore, employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualifying individuals with disabilities, barring undue hardship.

ADA Does Not Protect Behavior Caused by a Medical Condition

In Harkey v. NextGen Healthcare, Inc., the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit. In conclusion, the Fifth Circuit found that NextGen Healthcare, Inc. did not fire the plaintiff because of her medical condition. Instead, they fired her for behavior caused by a medical condition. In other words, the plaintiff’s medical condition caused her behavior. Still, it could not stand as a defense against violating the company’s code of conduct and her subsequent firing.

Prior ADA cases dealing with behavior caused by a medical condition markedly involved more violent and aggressive incidents. Nonetheless, the Fifth Circuit made no distinction between previous cases and Harkey v. NextGen Healthcare, Inc., in which the plaintiff appeared unconscious during the incident. The decision provides precedent establishing that even in non-violent cases, employers may make employment decisions based on misbehavior caused by a medical condition.