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Chipotle ADA ruling shows job-performance policies still have teeth

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A federal appeals court ruling that upholds the termination of a restaurant worker fired after acting inebriated while taking a prescribed anxiety medicine illustrates that employers can still dismiss workers for poor job performance despite expanded definitions of disability under federal law, experts say.

Lisa Caporicci, an employee at a South Tampa, Florida, restaurant operated by Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., was terminated June 7, 2013. After taking a relatively new medicine for anxiety, she “was very slow, messed up orders and was incoherent,” according to the May 27 ruling by the U.S. District Court in Tampa in Lisa Caporicci v. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.

Ms. Caporicci sued the chain on charges including violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The court granted Chipotle summary judgment dismissing the case.

Chipotle primarily cites case law that preceded the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act of 2008, which incorporated “more lenient standards” into regulations, says the decision.

But Ms. Caporicci “raises a genuine issue of fact about whether she has a disability,” said the ruling by Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell.

“Courts are split on the question of whether a termination based on conduct related to, or caused by, a disability constitutes unlawful discrimination,” said the ruling.

However, most courts have held “an employer may discipline or terminate an employee for workplace misconduct even when the misconduct is a result of the disability,” said the ruling.

“Although plaintiff was arguably fired for disability-related misconduct — inebriation due to her medication — Chipotle asserts that this conduct violated the company's Drug and Alcohol Policy, which prohibits any employee from reporting to work or being at work 'under the influence of alcohol, drugs or controlled substances,' ” said the ruling.

“That prohibition is neutral and generally applicable, and therefore satisfies Chipotle's burden to produce a nondiscriminatory reason for plaintiff's termination,” said the ruling.

The definition of disability has broadened in recent years and “a lot more employees have disabilities these days,” said Richard D. Tuschman, a partner with Goodz & Tuschman P.L.L.C. in Plantation, Florida.

This ruling illustrates, however, that “the basic principle, that an employer can terminate an employee for misconduct or poor job performance, even if it's related to a disability, has not changed,” said Mr. Tuschman.

There is an “interesting dilemma” in that there are cases in other jurisdictions “that say you shouldn't take adverse action against a disabled employee if the conduct was caused by their disability,” said Kathryn J. Russo, a principal with Jackson Lewis P.C. in Melville, New York.

Ms. Russo said in terms of advising employers, “the key issue here is which jurisdiction you're in.”

However, if an employee is acting as though intoxicated, “for the most part employers are still going to be able to enforce their policies,” she said.