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Wait. Charlie Sheen Has Essential Duties? A Legal Look at His Termination Letters

Posted in Human Resources (HR) Compliance

The media storm over the last two weeks regarding actor Charlie Sheen (and his Tiger Blood) reached a new frenzy this week as Warner Brothers Television finally issued its notice of termination of the actor.  

Jon Hyman, over at the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, had a great post earlier today about this and reviewed the termination letter from an ADA perspective. As he notes, Warner Brothers is taking a calculated risk:

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.”

The point Jon raises is a valuable one to know outside of the Charlie Sheen context.

Even though an employee may be disabled, the employee may not be eligible for relief under the act if he or she cannot do the essential functions.  

For an actor, Warner Brothers contends the essential functions are more than just reading lines. According to the company, an essential function is "working cooperatively and creatively with the other persons critical to the production."

Is Warner Bros. right? That’s actually a tougher question to answer than at first glance. A quick look at legal opinions shows a lack of any reference to an actor’s essential job duties.  But what Warner Bros. is laying the foundation for now is to show that the essential functions are more than merely reading a script; it’s being part of a larger collaborative process. It’s hard to argue with that common sense approach.

But alas, we are probably never to going get the real legal answers to these issues.  No doubt some type of settlement will transpire (is "Dancing with the Stars" or "Celebrity Apprentice" far behind?) and we’ll be left with our every day cases.  

And we’ll still be "Winning".

(Photo circa 2006, Bronx Zoo, of real tigers, not of people purporting to have their blood.)