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No ADA Claim For Chipotle Employee Terminated Over Prescription Drug Reaction

The Eleventh Circuit held this past week that an employee couldn’t show disability discrimination when Chipotle fired her for violating its zero-tolerance inebriation policy, despite evidence that the employee’s conduct was a result of prescription medication taken for a disability.  Caporicci v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., No. 16-13494 (11th Cir. 4/5/18).

In this case, Plaintiff Caporicci was hired by Chipotle in July 2012.  After a year of work, Caporicci disclosed to her manager that she was taking medication for bipolar disorder.  Chipotle responded neutrally and did not ask for further information.  Shortly thereafter, Caporicci’s medication was modified and Caporicci was given time off work to adjust.  Upon her return to work, she acted “very slow, messed up orders, and was incoherent.”  Chipotle sent Caporicci home and fired her later that day.

In response to her firing, Caporicci sued Chipotle for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  But according to Chipotle, its actions were legitimate because Caporicci violated the company’s zero-tolerance inebriation policy.  The district court agreed with Chipotle, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

By concluding Caporicci’s termination was not disability related because she was terminated pursuant to a neutrally-applicable policy, the Eleventh Circuit avoided addressing the question of whether a firing based on disability-related intoxication constitutes disability-based discrimination under the ADA.  Circuits are split on the issue.  While the Eleventh and Fourth Circuits have held that disability-related misconduct may serve as a basis for dismissal, the Ninth Circuit takes the opposite view.  J.A.M. v. Nova Se. Univ. Inc., 646 F. App’x 921 (11th Cir. 2016); Halpern v. Wake Forest Univ. Health Scis., 669 F.3d 454 (4th Cir. 2012);  Dark v. Curry Cty., 451 F.3d 1078 (9th Cir. 2006).

Meanwhile, EEOC guidance regarding mental health conditions in the workplace emphasizes that an employer has an obligation to determine whether a mental health condition can be reasonably accommodated.  Employers should approach discipline for disability-related misconduct cautiously, mindful that if an employee is able to perform her job free of misconduct with a reasonable accommodation, such support should be implemented before considering termination, absent a direct threat or undue hardship to the employer.

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