Employer May Terminate Disabled Employee for Threatening Conduct Even if Caused by Disability
Employees engaging in workplace misconduct such as violence or threats of violence are not immune from termination simply because a mental disability may have caused the misconduct. This was the holding of a California court this week in Wills v. Orange County Superior Court.
In Wills, the plaintiff was a clerk for the County. She had a mental disability—bipolar disorder—that caused her to take several leaves of absence during her employment, all of which the County accommodated. Shortly before her last leave of absence, the plaintiff showed up at work one day and became very angry at having to stand in the heat outside before someone unlocked the door. She told one or more co-workers that she was going to put them on her “Kill Bill” list as a result. Within a couple of days, the plaintiff took a leave of absence and provided a note indicating that her conduct was caused by her mental disability. While out on leave, the plaintiff sent several disturbing emails and text messages to her co-workers, which were also threatening. The plaintiff’s doctor eventually gave her a full release to return to work and explained she was not a threat. The County nonetheless terminated the plaintiff’s employment based on findings that she had violated workplace conduct rules prohibiting threatening and inappropriate behavior.
The plaintiff sued for disability discrimination and related causes of action. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the County and threw out the case. The plaintiff appealed, but failed in the appellate court as well. The California appellate court agreed that the plaintiff’s claims had no merit. The court only addressed the merits of the disability discrimination claim, having held that all other claims were barred due to the plaintiff’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies. With respect to the disability discrimination claim, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument (as well as Ninth Circuit precedent) that misconduct caused by disability is protected from adverse consequences just the same as the disability itself. The court held that an employer may discipline, and even terminate, a disabled employee for violence or threats of violence, regardless of whether the conduct was indisputably caused by a mental disability. As the court properly reasoned, the employer is disciplining the conduct not the disability.
The Wills case is a positive development for California employers, juggling the need to enforce workplace conduct rules while not running afoul of disability discrimination statutes.