Co-worker Safety Trumps Employee’s Right to Disability Accommodation After Making Death Threats
Published by Eric A. Welter on September 9, 2015
Employers’ hands are often bound when balancing workplace morale with their duty to accommodate employees with mental or behavioral health issues. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently clarified the limit of the employer’s duties in this regard, and joined its sister circuits in holding that an employee who makes death […]
Employers’ hands are often bound when balancing workplace morale with their duty to accommodate employees with mental or behavioral health issues. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently clarified the limit of the employer’s duties in this regard, and joined its sister circuits in holding that an employee who makes death threats against co-workers is not a qualified individual with a disability (within the meaning of the statute) and need not be accommodated.
In Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc., — F.3d –, 2015 WL 4529357 (9th Cir. 2015), an industrial worker (“Plaintiff”) with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder made multiple comments to co-workers about his desire or plan to bring a gun to work with the intent of shooting a specific supervisor, as well as others. The co-workers reported Plaintiff’s remarks to the company’s human resources director, and when the director asked Plaintiff about whether he planned to act on his threats, Plaintiff stated that he “couldn’t guarantee he wouldn’t do that.”
Plaintiff was immediately banned from company property, was involuntarily hospitalized and was placed on leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and Oregon law. At the end of Plaintiff’s leave, his psychologist cleared him to return to work, noting that Plaintiff was not a violent person. The psychologist recommended that Plaintiff have a different supervisor. Plaintiff was terminated upon the expiration of his leave, and he sued the company for disability discrimination under Oregon’s state equivalent of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Plaintiff argued that his comments were symptoms of his disability — major depressive disorder – and it was therefore unlawful discrimination for his employer to rely upon those symptoms as the basis of his termination.
To prove his case, Plaintiff had to first establish that he was qualified for the position and was able to perform the essential functions of the position with or without reasonable accommodation.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s determination that Plaintiff was not qualified for the position because he could not “appropriately handle stress and interact with others” — an essential function of nearly any job. The Ninth Circuit went on to hold that “[a]n employee whose stress leads to serious and credible threats to kill his co-workers is not qualified to work for the employer, regardless of why he makes those threats.”
While the Mayo decision provides peace of mind for employers facing difficult decisions regarding employees who make serious and credible threats to harm co-workers, its reach is limited. Employees with mental or behavioral disorders may still seek accommodation and employers should engage in the interactive process to find reasonable accommodations if they exist.Topics: ADA, disabilities, Discrimination, FMLA, Workplace Safety