The 9th Circuit, in Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc, recently issued an employer victory involving facts that seem more like television than real life. The story goes like this:

An employee was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder in 1999, but was able to properly perform his job with the help of medication and counseling. Everything was fine at work until 2010, when the employee began to feel that his supervisor was bullying him. The employee told co-workers that he wanted to kill his boss, specifying that he was going to bring a shotgun to work and blow his supervisor’s head off.

The employee’s co-workers did the right thing and reported these statements to HR. When asked about the threats, the employee said that he could not be sure that he wouldn’t attempt to carry out the shooting in the future. The police were called, the employee was taken into custody for six days, and then spent two months on Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave. The employee was then cleared to return to work and his therapist recommended that he be assigned to a different supervisor.  (I’m sure the feeling was mutual!)  Following his return from FMLA, he was fired.

We all know what happens next. The employee brought an Americans with Disabilities Act claim, arguing that his threats were the direct result of his major depressive disorder and that his employer failed to accommodate him by allowing him to be placed under a different supervisor. The employee’s claim failed, however, for a major reason: he was unable to show that he could perform the essential functions of his job with or without a reasonable accommodation and was therefore not a “qualified individual” under the ADA. The 9th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling, stating, “An essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others.”

Death threats against your supervisor because you’re feeling bullied? Not going to cut it.

The Court also noted that even when threatening comments can be attributed to a disability, like a depressive disorder, the employee’s inability to handle stress and interact with others renders him unable to perform the essential functions of the job. Therefore, in an extreme case like this, there may be no viable claim under the ADA. The 9th Circuit’s ruling in the Mayo case is in-line with several other circuits which have held that an employer cannot be forced to choose between accommodating a disability and creating an unsafe work environment for the rest of its employees. However, employers should note that the 9th Circuit’s ruling does not mean that all forms of misconduct fall outside of ADA protection. This decision applies to misconduct that takes the form of violence, such as the expression of homicide or similar acts at the work place.  A rude or unpleasant employee whose behavior can be attributed to a mental disability may still be deemed a “qualified individual” under the ADA, requiring the employer to engage in the interactive process and offer reasonable accommodation.