The US Department of Labor estimates that almost 50 million Americans have a disability. Laws and organizations, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), work to prevent discrimination towards individuals who have mental or physical conditions that substantially limit one or more major life activity.
Statistics indicate that people with disabilities make up 20 percent of the American workforce. Employers are required by law to provide reasonable accommodations to those who disclose their disability. When employees engage in misconduct resulting from their disabilities, employers often approach disciplinary action cautiously to avoid potential lawsuits.
On April 13, 2011, the Fourth District Court of Appeals gave employers greater clarification on disciplining disabled workers through a case of first impression. The Appellate Court ruled in favor of the employer that terminated plaintiff Linda Wills, who sued for disability discrimination, in the case of Wills V. Superior Court of Orange County.
California’s Superior Court of Orange County fired Wills from her position as a court clerk in October 2007 because of threats she made to her coworkers. Wills was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1997 and started her job at the Superior Court in 1999. Although she took several medical leaves to treat her disorder, she did not reveal her disability to her employer.
In July 2007, Wills received a work assignment at the Anaheim Police Department. She became angry when she had to wait for workers to let her into the department’s lockup facility. The police department’s employees informed the Orange County Court that Wills swore at them and told an officer she would add him to her Kill Bill list, referring to the popular movie about a female assassin. The employees of the police department described Wills’ behavior as threatening and asked the Superior Court to no longer assign her to their facilities.
Wills claimed that her outburst happened during an early stage of a severe manic episode. Her doctor placed her on medical leave shortly after the incident. Wills sent coworkers, friends and family members threatening, offensive and illogical emails and videos during her time away from work. When her doctor permitted her to return to work, her employer put her on paid administrative leave while it investigated her inappropriate behavior.
At the beginning of the investigation, the Superior Court received a letter from Wills’ doctor stating that she suffered from bipolar disorder. The doctor also said she would not cause danger to her coworkers. The Orange County Court decided to terminate Wills after its investigation for four reasons:
- Threatening a police department while performing official business
- Threatening and inappropriately communicating with her coworkers
- Misusing court resources
- Exhibiting poor judgment
Wills reacted to the termination with a lawsuit. She sued under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and alleged that she was fired because of her mental disorder. The Fourth District Court of Appeals did not deny that her disorder incited her misconduct, but it agreed with her employer and confirmed that Wills’ behavior was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory cause for her termination.
In proceeding cases, such as Gambini V. Total Renal Care, violent outbursts caused by mental disorders were not grounds for termination. This is because courts typically have ruled that ADA protects both the disability and disability-related misconduct unless the behavior was related to criminal activity or drug and alcohol abuse.
The key difference in Linda Wills’ case is that her threats and violent behavior were aimed at her coworkers, which put her employer on a “razor’s edge,” as the Appellate Court described. The Orange County Court could have violated the law if it terminated Wills, but it could have also violated the law if its employees were working in an unsafe environment, which the Appellate Court called being “caught on the horns of a dilemma.”
By reviewing the EEOC’s interpretation of ADA, the Appellate Court determined that an employer can discipline disabled employees for violating workplace conduct standards by threatening violence or committing violence against their coworkers. The Appellate Court purposely limited the scope of its decision to protect the disabled from discrimination and also allow employers to protect their staff from threats and actions of violence. Wills and her lawyers petitioned her case to the Supreme Court, but the high court agreed with the Appellate Court’s decision and decided to not review the case.
The Orange County Court’s preparedness with its written policy against workplace threats and violence, as well as its thorough investigation that included several witnesses, helped the Appellate Court determine that Wills’ termination was based on legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons.
The takeaway from this case for employers is to draft extensive workplace policies that are enforced throughout the organization and record all instances of misconduct. Employers are allowed to distinguish between disability-related misconduct and the disability itself when the behavior threatens a coworker with violence, but solid documentation and supporting evidence is required to prove that disciplinary action is based on nondiscriminatory factors.
Companies should still take heed when addressing misconduct from employees with disabilities. Although Wills provided a victory for employers, suspicious accusations and theorized claims may not be protected by this decision. For additional information on ADA or to discuss your organization’s handbook or workplace policies, please contact a member of CAI’s Advice and Counsel at 919-878-9222 or 336-668-7746.