The Ninth Circuit released a precedent-setting Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) decision yesterday, and it’s a big win for employers.  The Court held that an employee who makes “serious and credible threats of violence toward his co-workers” is not a “qualified individual with a disability” and therefore cannot state a claim under the ADA or Oregon disability law. Karen O’Connor, Brenda Baumgart and Andrea Thompson from Stoel Rives represented the employer in this case, Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc., and a link to the Court’s decision is here.

Plaintiff’s Stress Leads to Death Threats in the Workplace

Plaintiff was a long-term welder at an industrial facility. Despite a 1999 diagnosis of major depressive disorder, he worked without significant issue for decades. In 2010, plaintiff and a few co-workers claimed a supervisor bullied them at work. Shortly after a meeting among plaintiff, a co-worker and the company’s HR director to discuss the supervisor, plaintiff began making threatening comments. He told a co-worker that he “felt like coming down to [the facility] with a shotgun and blowing off” the heads of his supervisor and a different manager. Among other comments, he also told other co-workers that he planned to come to the facility during the day shift “to take out management” and that he “wanted to bring a gun down to [the facility] and start shooting people.”

Plaintiff’s co-workers reported his statements to a senior HR manager, who immediately contacted plaintiff. When the senior manager asked plaintiff directly if he planned to carry out his threats, he responded that he “couldn’t guarantee he wouldn’t do that.” The company immediately banned plaintiff from the property and contacted law enforcement. That same evening, the police went to plaintiff’s home. When asked whether he planned to follow through on his threat to shoot people at work, plaintiff responded: “Not tonight.” The officer took plaintiff into custody and took him to a hospital because he posed a threat to himself and others. Plaintiff remained hospitalized for six days, then began a leave of absence under the Oregon Family Leave Act (“OFLA”) and the federal Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).

Toward the end of his OFLA/FMLA leave, plaintiff’s psychologist cleared plaintiff to return to work and reported that he was not a “violent person,” but recommended he work under a different supervisor. The company terminated him at the conclusion of his family medical leave.

The Ninth Circuit Determines Plaintiff Was Not “Qualified” at the Time of His Discharge

Plaintiff sued the company for disability discrimination under Oregon’s disability law, which is patterned after the ADA. Plaintiff argued that his “disturbing” comments were symptoms of and caused by his disability, and thus the company discriminated against him when it relied on his comments as the basis for its termination decision.

To prove a claim for disability discrimination under the ADA and Oregon law, an employee must show (among other things) that he is a “qualified individual with a disability.” That term is further defined as someone who, “with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the position.”

The Court assumed that plaintiff was disabled. However, agreeing with decisions from several other circuits, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s conclusion that plaintiff’s threats of violence showed that he could not perform an essential function of his position: working cooperatively with his supervisors and managing his stress in the workplace. The Ninth Circuit wrote:

An essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others. See Williams v. Motorola, Inc., 303 F.3d 1284, 1290 (11th Cir. 2002). And while an employee can be qualified despite adverse reactions to stress, he is not qualified when that stress leads him to threaten to kill his co-workers in chilling detail and on multiple occasions (here, at least five times). This vastly disproportionate reaction demonstrated that [plaintiff] could not perform an “essential function” of his job, and was not a “qualified individual.” This is true regardless of whether [plaintiff]’s threats stemmed from his major depressive disorder.

Because plaintiff’s threats of violence demonstrated that he could not perform an essential function of his position, he was not qualified, and thus not entitled to the ADA and Oregon disability law protections.

What Does This Decision Mean for Employers?

Although it might seem like common sense that an employer can terminate an employee who threatens co-workers with violence, this case is the first time the Ninth Circuit has ruled on the issue. Prior Ninth Circuit cases have held that conduct that arises from a disability is, in fact, part of the disability, and thus an employee who is terminated for that conduct may state a claim for disability discrimination. This decision draws a clear distinction from (but notably does not overrule) those cases, and makes clear that an employer is under no obligation to tolerate threatened or actual violence in the workplace, even if the misconduct or statements are arguably the result of a disability.

However, employers should not read the decision as a license to discipline an employee for any misconduct that may result from a disability. For example, an employee who is persistently late to work in the morning because her prescription medication makes her drowsy may well be a “qualified individual with a disability” if the employer could simply adjust her start time. Nor should employers assume that simple rudeness or even non-violent outbursts (“temper tantrums,” to use the Court’s description) that result from a disability render an employee unqualified under the ADA. Indeed, the Ninth Circuit emphasized “the extreme facts before us in this case,” pointing out that its decision did not suggest that “off-handed expressions of frustration or inappropriate jokes render an employee not qualified.”  In that regard, the Mayo decision is similar to another Ninth Circuit decision we blogged about a few years ago, Samper v. Providence St Vincent Medical Ctr.  In that case, the Court held that regular attendance at work could be an essential function of a job, but that employers should not necessarily assume that will be the case in every situation.

The bottom line for employers is that disciplining employees (including termination) for actual or potential violence in the workplace – even if related to a disability – will likely not violate disability protections, but less extreme or egregious actions that are related to a disability still require a careful and cautious approach.