Does an employer violate the ADA by firing an employee three weeks after the employee informs security that he is “unstable” and having homicidal thoughts? However unlikely a “yes” answer to that question may seem, a judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania concluded that it was possible in Walton v. Spherion Staffing LLC, No. 13-6896 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 13, 2015).
Both the ADA and state disability discrimination laws permit employers to terminate employees for disability-related misconduct, as long as the termination is not because of the disability itself. When an employer’s explanation for its disciplinary action is found to be pretextual, however, disability claims may proceed.
In October 2011, Taj Walton was assigned by Spherion, the staffing agency with which he was employed, to work in the warehouse at Tech Data Corporation. The following month, unbeknownst to Tech Data, Mr. Walton experienced suicidal thoughts lasting for about half an hour while on his way to work one day. The next day, the violent thoughts returned and grew into thoughts of harming others. Mr. Walton then wrote a note to his supervisor, stating:
Please Help Call [telephone number] Mom [telephone number] 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.
Unfortunately, Mr. Walton’s supervisor was herself on intermittent medical leave at the time; a security guard, however, read the note and had Mr. Walton escorted by police to the nearest hospital. Tech Data was subsequently informed that Mr. Walton had been diagnosed with depression and treated. After Mr. Walton asked about his health insurance coverage and made several unsuccessful attempts to contact his supervisor over the following three weeks, the supervisor terminated Mr. Walton and informed him that his health insurance policy was canceled. (There is no indication in the opinion that Tech Data placed Mr. Walton on leave during this period.)
Mr. Walton sued Spherion and Tech Data for disability discrimination under the ADA and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). Spherion moved for judgment on the pleadings, contending that Mr. Walton lost all legal protection when he threatened violence against his supervisor and coworkers.
The court denied Spherion’s motion. As the court noted, the case implicates “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.” Despite the employer’s contention that Mr. Walton posed a direct threat to the safety of himself and others, the court concluded that a reasonable jury could find that Mr. Walton’s note was not threatening, but rather, an “apolog[y] for his compromised mental state [that] expressed a clear desire not to engage in any threatening conduct.” The court also agreed with Mr. Walton’s argument that “if ‘a disabled employee who asks for help should be automatically terminated, the purpose for enacting the ADA and [state disability discrimination] laws is defeated.’” Furthermore, the court emphasized the facts that (1) nearly three weeks passed between the note incident and Mr. Walton’s termination, and (2) Mr. Walton asked about his health insurance coverage shortly after the incident, in finding that Spherion’s reasons for termination could be pretextual. Indeed, the court noted, “had [the employers] terminated [Mr. Walton’s] employment immediately on the day of his perceived crisis, it would seem farfetched that [he] was discharged because of his disability.”
As the court recognized, ruling in Mr. Walton’s favor runs the risk of “subject[ing] employers to a daunting standard, torn between a legal requirement to accommodate mentally ill employees and the moral imperative of providing a safe workplace.” Indeed, the apparent catch-22 between employers having to protect both the few and the many at the same time would be highly unworkable. Nevertheless, discovery will proceed.
This case underscores the importance of employers conducting prompt but thorough investigations when faced with reported threats of violence. The decision to take action against an employee should be based on a case-by-case assessment of risk, rather than stereotypes about mental illness. Putting the employee who has made the alleged threat on paid leave until the completion of the investigation accomplishes the dual goals of protecting the workplace while not taking premature discipline that may be inflammatory to the situation.