Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Does CBS “regard” Charlie Sheen as disabled under the ADA?

Yesterday, CBS finally pulled the plug on Charlie Sheen. I go back and forth whether he’s legitimately off his rocker, or he’s pulling off a calculated publicity stunt. Either way, CBS had enough and officially terminated him. TMZ published CBS’s 21-page termination letter [pdf].

Sheen’s agreement provides for termination in the event of “Incapacity,” including “mental disabilities, which due to the unique nature of Performer’s Obligations, are not subject to reasonable accommodation and which render Performer unable to perform the essential duties of Performer’s position.” Here’s how CBS’s lawyers discussed the touchy issue of terminating an employee with an apparent mental illness.

The facts establish that there was a serious material change in Mr. Sheen’s attributes that rendered him unwilling or unable to perform his essential duties. As the lead actor in a successful television comedy, Mr. Sheen’s essential duties encompass more than just showing up and delivering lines. One essential duty is working cooperatively and creatively with the other persons critical to the production. Mr. Sheen went from an actor who performed those duties to an individual whose self-destructive conduct resulted in his hospitalization, his inability to work at all for a period and the rapid erosion of the cooperative and creative process necessary to produce the Show. Indeed,

Mr. Sheen’s shocking behavior has continued since production was halted, further confirming such incapacity and/or a serious health condition.

CBS disposed of the contractual argument, but has it opened itself up to a claim under the ADA?

The ADA (as amended by the ADA Amendments Act), not only covers employees with actual disabilities, but also employees that an employer “regards as” disabled. There is no doubt from reading the termination letter that CBS fired Sheen because it “regarded him” as having a mental impairment. The legality of this termination under the ADA will hinge on whether Sheen is a “qualified individual”—that is, can he perform the essential functions of his position with or without reasonable accommodation. CBS clearly believes the answer is “no.”

Given the amount of money at stake, a court or arbitrator will have the final say. I suspect, however, that given Sheen’s public tirades about his boss, coupled with his public displays of incoherence (real or calculated), he is going to have a tough row to hoe in litigation.

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