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Attorneys

Ninth Circuit Says Employee Who Made Death Threats Against His Co-Workers Could Not Sue His Employer For Disability Discrimination

August 4 2015

By: Lukas Clary

Joining similar holdings from several other circuits, the Ninth Circuit recently held in Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc. that a depressed employee who threatened to kill his co-workers and was thereafter fired was not a qualified individual under the ADA.  The court therefore affirmed the district court’s summary judgment on the employee’s disability discrimination claim.

Stress, Depression, and Bullying Lead Employee to Threaten Co-Workers’ Lives

The plaintiff, Timothy Mayo, welded aircraft parts for PCC Structurals.  In 1999, Mayo was diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD).  Despite the diagnosis, he continued working without incident for years.  In 2010, that changed.  Mayo and some other co-workers felt they were being bullied by their supervisor.  Following a co-worker’s complaint and a subsequent meeting to discuss the bullying, Mayo told three different co-workers that he wanted to kill the supervisor.  He told one co-worker that he felt like bringing a shotgun to work and “blowing off” the supervisor and others’ heads.  He told another co-worker that he wanted to “bring a gun down and start shooting people,” explaining that 1:30 p.m. was an optimal time because all of the supervisors would be present.  Pretty scary stuff.

Mayo’s co-workers reported the threats and HR reached out to him.  He told an HR representative that he “couldn’t guarantee” he wouldn’t carry out the threats.  PCC suspended him and called the police, who in turn took Mayo into custody for six days on the basis that he was a threat to himself and others.  After his release, Mayo spent two months on FMLA leave.  His doctor thereafter cleared him to return to work but suggested that he be assigned a different supervisor.  Instead, PCC fired him.

Ninth Circuit Holds that the Employee Cannot Sue for ADA Discrimination

Mayo sued PCC for disability discrimination in violation of Oregon’s version of the ADA, arguing that his threats were the result of his MDD and that PCC failed to accommodate him with a different supervisor.  The district court granted summary judgment, holding that Mayo could not establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination.  To establish a prima facie case, an employee must show, among other things, that he is a qualified individual under the ADA.  A qualified individual is someone who can perform the essential functions of his job with or without a reasonable accommodation.

According to the Ninth Circuit, Mayo was not a qualified individual under the ADA because he could not handle the essential functions of his job.  The court held: “[a]n essential function of almost every job [including Mayo’s] is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others.”  According to the court, threatening the lives of one’s co-workers “in chilling detail” on multiple occasions is a pretty clear indicator that an employee cannot appropriately handle stress and interact with others.  Shocking, right?  This is true, according to the court, regardless of whether the comments resulted from the MDD.

In affirming the district court’s holding, the Ninth Circuit agreed with several other Circuits that have held employers cannot be forced to choose between not accommodating a disability and creating an unsafe workplace for other employees.  The court noted that this was a “common sense principle” and it was aware of no cases, regulations, or guidance that disagreed.

But while it may seem like common sense, to get to its holding, the Ninth Circuit had to distinguish several prior cases in which it had excused conduct resulting from a disability.  The court accepted that conduct resulting from a disability “is considered to be part of the disability, rather than a separate basis for termination.”  But the court drew the line at specific threats of violence, holding that an employer has no obligation to “simply cross their fingers and hope that violent threats ring hollow.”  While expressly acknowledging the real struggles of depression and mental illness, the Court held that protecting the individual rights of those who suffer from such illness must give way to an employer’s obligation to maintain the safety of its workforce.

Take Away For Employers

This case is a clear victory for employers and, as the court stated, applies a “common sense principle.”  But the case should also be read narrowly.  Importantly, the Ninth Circuit distinguished rather than overruled its previous line of cases holding that conduct resulting from a disability is to be considered part of the disability.  Employers still have to be careful not to automatically terminate any employee whose misconduct can be attributed to a disability.  Under most circumstances, an employer will still have to determine whether it can accommodate the employee in a way that eliminates the risk of misconduct.  Employees who threaten actual violence, however, are a different story.