Best Ohio Disability Discrimination Attorney Answer: Can I sue my employer for disability discrimination? If my disability causes me to threaten violence against others in the workplace, can my employer terminated me? Does the public policy against workplace violence trump disability discrimination? Can an employer hide behind the veil of protecting other employees in terminating an employee whose disability causes them to have violent tendencies?
Our employment discrimination attorneys previous blogged about Williamson v. Bon Secours Richmond Health System, Inc., in which the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted judgment in favor of the employer for firing an employee who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder because of threats to kill people in the workplace. That court held: “The ADA does not protect employees who make terroristic threats against the lives of their fellow employees—even if those threats are the unfortunate byproduct of the employee’s disabling mental illness. Williamson provides no evidence that Junod made the decision to fire him on any basis other than the alleged threats to kill his supervisors, blow up the practice, and shoot civilians from a “tall building.”
This seems pretty clear. However, the line is not always that clear. Indeed, a very interesting decision just came down a Federal District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania regarding the question of whether an employee can state a claim for wrongful termination against a former employer who terminated that employee because his disability caused him to either threaten to harm himself or others in the workplace. In Walton v. Spherion Staffing LLC, the Court was faced with a motion for judgment on the pleadings regarding Walton’s claim that the company terminated her based on disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The beginning of the Court’s opinion sets the stage for the important competing policies at play in this case:
This case tests the outer bounds of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the context of workplace violence. I am confronted with two competing but equally valid public policy interests—the need for a safe workplace, as weighed against the need to accommodate and treat mental illness. Ruling in favor of the Defendant employer here could discourage employees in crisis from seeking help. On the other hand, ruling for the affected employee could subject employers to a daunting standard, torn between a legal requirement to accommodate mentally ill employees and the moral imperative of providing a safe workplace. On the specific facts of this case, as ably pleaded by Plaintiff’s counsel, I am persuaded that this case should proceed with discovery, and so Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss will be denied.
Specifically, Walton, a former employee of Spherion, “experienced suicidal ideations” during his employment, and later developed “homicidal” ideations as well. At one point during his employment, Walton wrote a note that he gave to his supervisor that read: “Lizelle, Please Help Call [telephone number provided] Mom [telephone number provided] Dad The police I’m scared and angry. I don’t know why but I wanna kill someone/anyone. Please have security accompany you if you want to talk to me. Make sure, please. I’m unstable. I’m sorry Taj.”
After sending the letter, Walton waited outside of the office and police (who had been called by the employer) escorted him to a nearby hospital for treatment. Walton was diagnosed with depression. Thereafter, Walton contacted Spherion several times inquiring about his medical condition and his medical insurance coverage. About three weeks later, Walton was able to reach Spherion by phone and was terminated from his employment. Thereafter, Walton sued the company for disability discrimination and Spherion filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings.
Spherion’s argument was simple, that it could legally terminate Walton, even based on his disability, because his condition caused him to be a threat to others or himself in the workplace. The Court noted that federal case law does in fact provide that “a disabled person can be lawfully terminated for disability related misconduct—so long as the employer’s explanation is not a pretext for discrimination.” Spherion argued that Walton made “threats” against others, therefore requiring the company to terminate his employment.
Walton countered by arguing that his actions were not a “threat of workplace violence.” On the contrary, according to Walton, “he did not actually threaten anyone, but apologized for his compromised mental state and expressed a clear desire not to engage in any threatening conduct. Plaintiff’s note, literally beginning, ‘Please Help,’ was rooted in fear (‘I’m scared’) and intended to protect (‘Please have security accompany you’), rather than threaten, his colleagues.” The Court accepted this argument, noting that, “As pleaded, the Complaint alleges that in the moment of crisis, Plaintiff neither committed nor threatened violent acts, but rather sought assistance. Viewed from one perspective, Plaintiff’s actions might well exemplify a commendable response to a psychiatric emergency; if all persons overcome with unfamiliar homicidal ideations were able to act as sensitively as Walton, potentially there might be less violence.”
The Court then emphasized that “mental illness” is often misunderstood by those who do not suffer from the condition, and there was no indication that Walton had a history of any violent conduct. Moreover, the Court stated, “from the standpoint of workplace violence, termination of an employee is hardly a guarantee of safety. To the contrary, recent history is replete with incidents in which a disgruntled, former employee returned to the worksite, with tragic results.”
Indeed, the Court expressed that, “From a policy standpoint, in weighing the equally valid interests presented by this case, a credible argument can be made that failing to provide treatment to someone such as the Plaintiff, who has to some degree identified his need for treatment and sought help, would create a greater risk of violence, including violence directed to the employer who denied assistance.”
Finally, in denying Spherion’s motion, the Court paid great attention to the fact that the company did not immediately terminate Walton; rather, he was terminated weeks later, after the company learned about his mental illness and linked it to the cause of his comments:
On its face, Defendant’s portrayal of this case presents a superficially convincing theory that Plaintiff was indeed fired for misconduct, especially when taking into account the fact that Defendants were not on notice about Plaintiff’s disability until after the incident in question. Consequently, had Defendants terminated Plaintiff’s employment immediately on the day of his perceived crisis, it would seem farfetched that Plaintiff was discharged because of his disability.
But the facts presented are not that simple. Approximately three weeks passed between the incident in question and Plaintiff’s termination, during which Plaintiff repeatedly contacted his employer to give notice of his disability and resultant need for medical treatment. He even specifically inquired about his insurance coverage, and he was persistent in his efforts to reach his supervisor. Under the Complaint as pleaded, if a genuine threat existed, it had passed, and Plaintiff was actively pursuing treatment that had the potential to control the newly discovered symptoms of his mental illness at the time of his termination. Thus, in viewing all facts and inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, there is a plausible reading of the Complaint where Plaintiff was discharged as a result of his disability and need for urgent, and presumably expensive, medical attention, rather than as a result of any workplace threat. The considerable lapse in time between Plaintiff’s “misconduct” and Defendant’s adverse action is critical to my analysis, as it gives life to a viable factual dispute. I am not unmindful of Defendant’s contention that they have an obligation to the entire workplace, but on the record before me, a blanket conclusion that the decision to discharge Walton was motivated by his misconduct must be tested by discovery.
Now, this decision certainly does not mean that Walton will successfully win her suit Spherion for disability discrimination; rather, it simply means that his claim did not fail as a matter of law at this very early stage in the litigation thereby allowing him to proceed with discovery. It will be interesting to see whether Walton can survive a motion for summary judgment, which would open the door for Walton’s claim and others like it to get in front of a jury.
But the distinction between Williamson and Walton may be clear to some, but not to others. To me the biggest two factors is to see how quickly the employer acted; and how direct the threats were. Obviously, the more direct and documented the threats are and the quicker the employer acted, the harder the claim will be.
Having to live with a disability is difficult enough without worrying about the effect it may have on your job. If you are disabled or your employer perceives you as being disabled; and you have been fired, wrongfully terminated, discriminated against, demoted, wrongfully disciplined, denied wages, or even think that you might need a disability discrimination lawyer, then call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. Call our Ohio employment law attorneys at 866-797-6040. The best option is not to wait. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm, and its attorneys are experienced and dedicated to protecting disabled employees’ rights under ADA and Ohio employment law.
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