March 21, 2011

WAS CHARLIE SHEEN REGARDED AS BEING DISABLED?

by Art Gutman Ph.D., Professor, Florida Institute of Technology

Charlie Sheen’s “adventures” have dominated the popular press and Internet blogs in recent weeks. We do not normally feature such stories in this space. However, last week, his lawyers filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Chuck Lorre, the show’s co-creator and executive producer, and Warner Brothers., claiming breach of contract, employment discrimination, retaliation, and failure to pay wages to people who work on the show, among other allegations [, Cal. Super. Ct., No. SC111794, complaint filed 3/10/11]. Among the various allegations, the one that is most intriguing is a claim of disability discrimination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

A key issue in any disability claim is establishing disability within the meaning of the law (state or federal). The most common route is to claim a current physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Obviously, Sheen, by his own recent statements (that he is ready, willing, and capable of going back to work), does not fit this definition. Nor did he claim to have a history of a physical or mental impairment. On the other hand, based on the language in the lawsuit, Sheen may have been regarded as being disabled, which also satisfied the definition of being disabled.

Specifically, the lawsuit claims that Warner Brothers “accused Mr. Sheen of having physical and mental disabilities” in a letter it sent him prior to his termination”, suggesting that Mr. Sheen has an “alleged illness and need for medical care and/or treatment when it terminated his employment contract.” The lawsuit also claims that “[Warner Brothers] failed to reasonably accommodate Mr. Sheen”, and that the argument that he could “not perform the essential duties of his position” was a pretext for discrimination.

While members of the popular press might scoff at such a lawsuit, if the content of the letter to Sheen is as represented, Warner Brothers did regard him as being disabled, and Sheen would have the opportunity to explain why is ready, willing, and able to go back to work. In short, what might seem frivolous to consumers of the nightly news, is not necessarily frivolous under the law.

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