U.S. Third Circuit - The FindLaw 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Nuclear Security Guard's Disability Suit Fails

We do not want mentally disturbed people in charge of nuclear power -- and we're not even talking about certain world leaders.

In the case of McNelis v. Pennsylvania Power & Light Company, the court was talking about a security guard at a nuclear power plant. He sued for disability discrimination, but the court concluded he was not mentally fit for the job.

It is a sad story for the individual in the case, but emphasizes the explosive potential for everybody from paranoia around nuclear power.

Paranoid Delusions

Daryle McNelis was a nuclear security officer at the Pennsylvania facility. He carried a gun and was authorized to use deadly force.

In 2012, he started to have personal and mental health problems. He had paranoid delusions that covert listening devices were installed in his children's toys, and he told his wife he would kill whoever was following him.

A friend and co-worker thought McNelis was using bath salts -- a synthetic drug that affects the central nervous system. A psychiatrist concluded McNelis suffered from "paranoid thoughts ... sleeplessness and questionable auditory hallucinations."

Dr. David Thompson, who performed fitness-for-duty examinations at 20 nuclear facilities nationwide, said McNelis was not fit for the job. The power plant revoked his access and terminated him. He sued.

Not Fit for Duty

A district court judge dismissed his case, and the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The courts said that McNelis was fired because he lacked a legally mandated job requirement -- authorization for unrestricted security access from the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"Before an employee is granted unrestricted access, he must undergo a psychological assessment that evaluates 'the possible adverse impact of any noted psychological characteristics on the individual's trustworthiness and reliability,'" the court said, citing 10 C.F.R. Section 73.56(e).

The law says that if an official believes the employee's reliability is "questionable," the official must terminate access. The appeals court noted "the incoherence of McNelis's theory" that Pennsylvania Power & Light used his fitness-for-duty concerns "to mask that it was firing him because it thought he used bath salts and had psychological issues."

"Either of these allegedly forbidden reasons for his termination would have been additional valid reasons for PPL to have revoked McNelis's plant access," the court said.

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