Depressed Employee’s Multiple Death Threats Disqualify Him From Disability Law Protection
After 12 years on the job, plaintiff was diagnosed with major depression. With medication and treatment, however, he continued to work without significant incident for another 11 years. At that time, plaintiff, along with a number of co-workers, complained to the employer’s human resources director that a particular supervisor was “bullying them and making work life miserable.” Shortly thereafter, plaintiff made threatening comments to his co-workers, telling them that he felt like “blowing off” the heads of his supervisor and another with a shotgun; that he wanted to “take out” members of management; and that he wanted to “start shooting people.”
When the employer asked plaintiff about the threats, he responded that he “couldn’t guarantee” that he would not follow through on them. Consequently, he was suspended and barred from company property. That same evening, a police officer visited plaintiff to discuss the threats. Plaintiff readily admitted making the threats, and explained that he had “two or three” specific people in mind, although he had not yet decided which of his multiple guns to use. After a brief hospitalization, plaintiff took three months of Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) leave, at the end of which he was cleared to return to work by a psychologist, who recommended that he be assigned to report to a different supervisor. The employer terminated him instead.
Plaintiff sued, alleging that his termination violated his state’s disability discrimination statute, which is generally interpreted consistently with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. A federal judge granted the employer’s motion to dismiss the case. Plaintiff appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the dismissal in Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc., 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 13065 (9th Cir. 2015). Observing that “common sense” dictates that “[a]n employee whose stress leads to serious and credible threats to kill his co-workers is not qualified to work for the employer, regardless of why he makes those threats,” the court ruled that plaintiff was not “qualified” for his position and, thus not protected by the disability discrimination law. According to the appeals court, an essential function of most jobs is the ability to “appropriately handle stress and interact with others.” The court cautioned, however, that it was “not suggest[ing] that off-handed expressions of frustration or inappropriate jokes necessarily render an employee not qualified” under disability discrimination laws