Terminating Federal Workers With Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that aims to guarantee equal opportunities and to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in areas such as public transportation, employment, and state and local government services for individuals with disabilities.

However, there is often a stigma associated with certain types of disabilities, such as mental illness, which can make it difficult for employees to request accommodations that are required by the ADA.

In Haas v DHS, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) has reached a decision that furthers the stigma. George Haas, was a Customs and Border Protection officer at the Port of Houston airport, who was previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He carried on with his duties, with no symptoms of his condition arising, collecting commendations and merits throughout his 17-year career. When Haas requested accommodations because his medical restrictions prevented him from fulfilling the new duties in his reassigned position. Instead of accommodating, the employer revoked Haas’s privileges and concluded that his bipolar disorder made him unable to fulfil his obligations.

Under the federal regulation of disqualification on the basis of medical history, Haas appealed the MSPB’s decision. Even though Haas had not presented any symptoms that affected his long career, it was testified by a medical expert that bipolar disorder is permanent and persistent.

The MSBP stipulated the correct removal of an employee if their medical conditions inhibit them from performing the main duties of the position. Furthermore the board delineated that the agency was relying on the board’s interpretation of “medical history” which includes the instances an individual has been treated or examined. This indicates that the regulation only applies to people who have no risk of reemerging symptoms.

Since the regulation did not apply, the agency only needed to prove a connection between his diagnosis and his inability to perform. Haas’s job required attentiveness and sometimes working under stressful conditions. The employer based their removal on the presupposition that he could not perform his responsibilities based on his diagnosis, even after being cleared for duty by his medical provider.

Citing a finding in Pyles v. Merit Systems Protection Board , the MSPB agreed that the diagnosis of a medical condition that is permanent by nature will continue to abide throughout the individual’s life regardless of it being asymptomatic. However, this appeal did not use the employees medical history to determine their skills. This allows employers to have employees removed based on hearsay about their inability to perform or potential dangers caused. Despite there being a good record, no skill impediments, or symptoms. Furthering the allowance of the stigmatization of psychiatric disorders.

Even though Haas exercised his right under the ADA, the MSPB’s decision offered no protection against retaliation for requesting accommodations under the ADA. For its reliance on the “but for” standard to determine actual causation. This does not necessarily affect an employee’s ability to prove discrimination, but it may be taken into account when deciding on appropriate relief. However, for federal employees who go through the Merit Systems Protection Board process, if the agency can provide another reason for the employee’s removal, the claim of reprisal will be denied.

In the case of George Haas, the MSPB allowed his agency to make assumptions about the potential impact of his medical diagnosis on his job performance, and when Haas protested and claimed the right to accommodation, he was unable to prove that the agency’s actions were motivated by reprisal rather than the agency’s assumptions about his future performance. As a result, Haas lost his job after 17 years of employment.


Reference: Order and Opinion of Merit Systems Protection Board in Haas v. DHS

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