When death threats and disability collide
Employers know that threats of workplace violence must be taken seriously, but when violent outbursts are connected with an employee’s disability, the situation may not be straightforward.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently considered a case where an employee who had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder felt he and some of his coworkers were the target of bullying by their supervisor. The employees had reported the situation and had met with a human resources executive to discuss it. However, shortly after the meeting, the employee made several threatening comments to his colleagues regarding the supervisor, including:
- That he “fe[lt] like coming down [to work] with a shotgun” and “blowing off” the heads of the supervisor and another manager;
- That he planned to come to work on a day shift “to take out management”;
- That he “want[ed] to bring a gun” to work “and start shooting people”; and
- That “all [he] would have to do to shoot [the supervisor] is show up [at work] at 1:30 in the afternoon” because all the supervisors would be present.
After his coworkers reported the threats, the company met with the employee to discuss them. When asked, the employee indicated that he “couldn’t guarantee” he wouldn’t carry out his threats. As a result, the employee was immediately suspended.
Where’s my accommodation?
At the end of his leave period, the employee was cleared by a psychologist to return to work, but the psychologist recommended that he be assigned to a new supervisor. However, the employer decided to terminate the employee because of the threat he posed to the workplace.
The employee sued, alleging that his “disturbing statements and comments … were the symptoms of and caused by his disability,” making his termination discriminatory under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The employee argued that the employer should have provided him with a new supervisor as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t get so far as to rule on whether the employer failed to accommodate the employee. To qualify for the ADA’s protections, an individual with a disability must be “qualified,” which means he would need to be able — with or without a reasonable accommodation — to perform the essential functions of his job.
The court ruled that “an essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others.” It further noted that an employee is not qualified when stress “leads him to threaten to kill his co-workers in chilling detail and on multiple occasions.” Since the employee was not a qualified individual under the ADA, the employer did not fail to accommodate him. Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc.
, July 28, 2015
While this case gives employers (especially those in the Ninth Circuit) some reassurance that they may not have to choose between ensuring a safe workplace for their employees and violating the ADA, its applicability may be limited.
Employers can’t assume that any adverse reaction to stress would mean an offending employee isn’t “qualified” under the ADA. This case involved extreme facts; the employee made serious and credible threats of violence. As always, employers have to consider each situation on its individual merits.
Mary K. Borsecnik
J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc.