A depressed employee who was fired for threatening to kill his co-workers was not a qualified individual entitled to protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as the employee could not perform essential job functions, with or without an accommodation, a federal appeals court in San Francisco has ruled, affirming judgment in favor of the employer. Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc., No. 13-35643 (9th Cir. July 28, 2015). The Ninth Circuit has jurisdiction over Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

Background

Timothy Mayo was a welder for PCC Structurals, a manufacturer of specialized aircraft parts. Mayo was diagnosed with major depressive disorder in 1999, but medication and treatment enabled him to continue working without incident until 2010, when he began to feel he was being bullied by his supervisor. 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 heads of the supervisor and another manager. He told another co-worker that he wanted to “bring a gun down and start shooting people.” Mayo said he wanted to start shooting at 1:30 p.m., because by that time all of his supervisors would be at the worksite, thereby presenting him with a maximally target-rich environment.

Mayo’s co-workers reported the threats to the employer. When questioned, Mayo told an HR representative that he “couldn’t guarantee” he would not carry out the threats. PCC immediately suspended Mayo and called the police. The police took Mayo into custody for six days on the basis that he was an imminent threat to himself and others. After his release from police custody, Mayo spent two months on Family and Medical Leave Act and Oregon Family Leave Act leave. Mayo’s psychologist and a nurse practitioner cleared him to return to work and suggested that Mayo be assigned a different supervisor. Instead, PCC terminated Mayo’s employment.

Mayo brought an Americans with Disabilities Act case against PCC, arguing that his threats were the result of his diagnosed major depressive disorder and that PCC Structurals failed to accommodate him (by following the suggestion of his doctor that he be assigned a different supervisor).

The District Court granted summary judgment to the employer, holding that Mayo could not establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination. Mayo was unable to show he could perform the essential functions of his job with or without a reasonable accommodation and, therefore, he was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA.

Expressed Homicidal Ideation in Workplace Bars ADA Discrimination Claim

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court decision. Its holding was straightforward: Mayo was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA because he could not perform the essential functions of his job:

An essential function of almost every job [including Mayo’s] is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others.

The logic of our holding is that compliance with such fundamental standards is an “essential function” of almost every job.

Writing for the panel, Judge John B. Owens stated that threatening the lives of one’s co-workers “in chilling detail” on multiple occasions indicates that an employee cannot appropriately handle stress and interact with others. The Court also held that, even when the threatening comments can be traced back to a disability, such as major depressive disorder, the employee’s inability to handle stress and interact with others renders him unable to perform essential job functions and negates a claim under the ADA.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision brings it in line with several sister Circuits that have held employers cannot be forced to choose between accommodating a disability and creating an unsafe workplace for other employees. The Court said:

The [ADA] does not require an employer to retain a potentially violent employee. Such a request would place an employer on a razor’s edge — in jeopardy of violating the [ADA] if it fires such an employee, yet in jeopardy of being deemed negligent if it returned him and he hurts someone. The [ADA] protects only “qualified” employees, that is employees qualified to do the job for which they were hired; and threatening other employees disqualifies one.

While acknowledging prior cases holding that conduct resulting from a disability “is considered to be part of the disability,” the Ninth Circuit ruled that when it comes to overt threats to kill co-workers, employers have no obligation to “simply cross their fingers and hope that violent threats ring hollow …. [W]hile the ADA and Oregon disability law protect important individual rights, they do not require employers to play dice with the lives of their workforce.”

Addressing Mayo’s claim that PCC Structurals should have reasonably accommodated him by following his psychologist’s suggestion that he be assigned a different supervisor, the Ninth Circuit stated:

Giving Mayo a different supervisor would not have changed his inappropriate response to stress – it would have just removed one potential stressor and possibly added another name to the hit list.

Implications

The Court was faced with a person clearly disabled by major depression who manifested that disability through very specific threats of violence. While being sensitive to the realities of mental illness, the Court ultimately was forced to decide whether safety of the workplace must take primacy over the otherwise extant protections of the ADA for disabled employees. The Ninth Circuit came down on the side of workplace safety. Its ruling can be summarized as “Safety first. ADA second.”

The decision applies only to misconduct that takes the form of violence (or the expression of homicidal or violent ideation in the workplace). The Court did not hold that all forms of employee misconduct fall outside the ADA. Indeed, it emphasized that its holding was limited to “the extreme facts . . . of an employee who makes serious and credible threats of violence.” It stated that employees who are rude, gruff, unpleasant, or anti-social may have a “psychiatric disability” and, thus, be a “qualified individual” under the ADA. Where non-violent misconduct stems from a disability, it will continue to be deemed a part of the disability, requiring employers to attempt accommodation to mitigate future disability-driven misconduct.