Generally, it does not violate the ADA to terminate an employee who has assaulted a coworker or poses a significant threat of doing so, even if that employee suffers from a mental impairment. The following three cases illustrate situations in which courts ruled that the employer did not violate the ADA by terminating a mentally impaired employee who had behaved violently.
The first case involved John Adams, a 44-year-old computer programmer suffering from a personality disorder. In the case (Adams v. Alderson, U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia, 1989), Adams sued after he was removed from his job for violently, assaulting a female supervisor, rampaging through the workplace, damaging equipment, and generally destroying the office.
Noting that employers are obligated to accommodate only those workers who are “otherwise qualified” for the position, the court concluded that “One who is unable to refrain from doing physical violence to the person of a supervisor, no matter how unfair he believes the supervision to be or how provocative its manner, is simply not otherwise qualified for employment.” Because Adams’s physical violence rendered him unqualified, the employer did not violate the ADA when it terminated his employment.
In a second case (Hamilton v. Southwestern Bell, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, 1998), Douglas Hamilton worked without incident for 20 years. However, after rescuing a drowning woman, he began to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Hamilton was fired after engaging in an afternoon of violent behavior in which he slammed a door, slapped the hand of his female manager, and yelled a string of profanities at her. The company also received an anonymous letter from Hamilton’s department describing him as “disgusting, dangerous, and abusive.”
The court of appeals upheld the judge’s finding that the employer acted properly, observing that the “ADA does not insulate emotional or violent outbursts blamed on an impairment.”
In the third case (Roeber v. Dowty Aerospace Yakima, Washington State Court of Appeals, 2003), Donald Roeber had been employed with his company for eighteen years, during which time he was competent, received regular promotions and salary increases, and generally worked well with others. Then his behavior changed; he became violent, first kicking a door, then threatening another employee who tried to calm him after the supervisor reprimanded him. Roeber was fired.
During the ensuing investigation, Roeber admitted that he was so mad he could have killed someone. But he went to court to challenge his termination.
Again, the court sided with the employer, finding that the company offered compelling evidence that it terminated Roeber for violating its policy prohibiting “horseplay, intimidation or coercion” of coworkers, not because of his mental impairment, if any.
Threats of Violence
If an employee has merely threatened, but not engaged in, violent behavior, the employer must assess the significance and severity of the threat. Threats unaccompanied by violent conduct must be evaluated carefully on a case-by-case basis.
A one-time, minor threat offered in jest may not rise to the level of a direct threat. On the other hand, a series of threats, a one-time serious threat, or a threat made with any other indication that potential harm will likely occur may satisfy the test for a direct threat, alleviating the employer’s need to accommodate a mental impairment.
Employers can safely fire an employee who has only threatened violence if they rely on objectively reasonable information suggesting that to leave the threat unaddressed would lead to violence. Again, some cases illustrate this principle.
In the first case (Blanton v. Prestolite Wire Corp., U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, 2000), Charles Blanton had never acted violently, but he was fired for making a series of threats—to “take out” certain coworkers who he thought had wronged him and to “blow away” the firm’s workers’ compensation carrier. He was also seen brandishing a gun and threatening suicide.
Branton challenged the action in court. The court had no problem finding that although Blanton had not yet acted on his threats, the employer was justified in terminating him. In a one-page opinion, it found that the employer had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for firing Blanton—it believed he was a serious threat to its employees. The court added that Blanton presented no evidence to show that the reason was a pretext for disability discrimination.
In another case (Calef v. The Gillette Co., U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, 2003), Fred Calef had several angry exchanges with other employees during his seven years with the company. The company had given him numerous warnings, including a “final” warning after Calef screamed at and lunged over the desk at a 60-year-old woman, threatened to punch her in the face, talked nonsensically, and generally instilled fear in his coworkers. When his threatening behavior continued, he was discharged.
Calef filed a lawsuit claiming that his behavior was caused by a mental impairment and that his ADA rights had been violated. The court of appeals upheld the judge’s ruling in the company’s favor, finding that Calef’s job required him to handle stressful situations without making others in the workplace feel that their own safety was threatened. If he could not do so, he was not qualified for the job, and the employer did not violate the ADA by terminating him.
In another recent case (Buie v. Quad/Graphics, Inc., U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, 2004), Anthony Buie yelled at his supervisor and pushed merchandise off a conveyor belt, then threatened a female coworker who had witnessed the tirade, putting his face close to hers and yelling, “I’ll get you bitch!” He then called the coworker’s house and warned that if something happened to her, “it’s her own fault.” The company fired Buie for his actions.
Buie filed a lawsuit, claiming his employer fired him because he had AIDS. The court disagreed, finding that the employer offered ample evidence that it terminated him because of his violent conduct.
Employers should use caution when asking an employee who has merely threatened violence to submit to a psychological examination. Such testing should be required only if the employer first documents what led the company to inquire about the employee’s ability to safely perform the job. The emphasis must be on safety; merely annoying behavior or perceived inefficiencies will not suffice. If the employer requires an evaluation, it should select a healthcare professional with appropriate expertise.
Requiring an employee to undergo a psychological examination potentially implicates two portions of the ADA: the prohibition of discrimination against an employee the employer “perceives” as being disabled, and the restriction of medical examinations.
Perceived as disabled. The “perceived as” dilemma arises out of the text of the ADA itself, which not only prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with a disability, but also prohibits discrimination on the basis of a “perceived” disability. An employee who has been asked to undergo a psychological evaluation may allege that his employer perceived him as disabled.
Limiting exams. The text of the ADA also limits medical examinations. Generally, an employer may require a medical examination of an existing employee only if the exam is job-related and consistent with business necessity. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the federal agency charged with implementing the ADA) suggests that an employer may require an employee to be examined by a healthcare professional (which the employee can select) based on a belief that the employee may be a direct threat to others, but the belief must be based on an assessment that is individualized and not based on general assumptions. The following cases illustrate how courts apply these principles.
In the case of Sullivan v. River Valley School District (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, 1999), Richard Sullivan attended a meeting of the River Valley School District, where he had been teaching for almost twenty years. He disrupted the meeting, shouted obscenities, and shoved papers in a board member’s face. He ignored orders to stop, issuing such threats as, “You’ll be sorry for this” and “You will regret this.”
Concerned about his behavior, the board asked Sullivan to submit to a mental fitness-for-duty exam before returning to the classroom. When Sullivan refused, he was fired.
He then sued the school district, alleging that its request for a psychological evaluation revealed that it unlawfully perceived him as having a mental disability. The court disagreed, reasoning that employers must be able to determine the reason for an employee’s poor job performance (the meeting was considered a function of his job).
In another case (Manson v. General Motors Corp., U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, 2003), William Manson’s coworkers thought he was behaving in a “crazy” manner that caused them to fear for their safety. The company investigated and required Manson to submit to a psychological evaluation, which he did. The professional evaluation resulted in a finding that Manson did not present a threat to the workplace. He was subsequently allowed to continue working at the company without restriction.
Manson nonetheless sued, alleging that his employer perceived him as being disabled. The court disagreed, finding that the company had a good reason for ordering the evaluation and that it has legal justification in doing so.