Jun 15 2010

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Who won this case: Does disability trump threat of violence?

By Tim Gould, HR Morning

An employee’s behavior leads his bosses to think he might commit some sort of workplace violence. The employee says his actions were caused by a psychological condition that’s now controlled by medication. Can the company let him go, or is he protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act? Read the dramatized version of this real-life case and see if you can determine the outcome.

The scenario
“I told you you shouldn’t have fired me,” Phil Williams growled into the phone.

“Phil, we went through all that with you,” said HR manager Jim Giordano.“First, we disciplined you for surfing the Internet looking at pictures of assault weapons. Then you hung up a picture of a co-worker with Charles Manson’s photo glued over her face.

“That was the final straw. It was very disturbing behavior, and we had to let you go.”

“But it’s against the law to fire somebody because of a disability, right?” asked Phil.

“Yes, Phil, it is,” said Jim. “But how does that relate to you?”

Surprise announcement
“I’ve seen a psychiatrist and I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder,” said Phil.

Jim was caught off guard. “Really?”

“Yeah. That’s a disability, right? And those things I did – I think they were related to being bipolar.

“You can’t fire me for a disability. I’ve got medicine now that will keep the problem under control.”

“I’m sorry, Phil,” said Jim. “We have an obligation to maintain a safe workplace, and your actions indicated you were a potential threat to your co-workers.”

Phil sued the company for disability discrimination.

Did the company win?

The decision
Yes, the company won.

The judge acknowledged that Phil had bipolar disorder, and that the disorder qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

But the court also noted that there’s nothing in the ADA that prevents employers from disciplining employees with disabilities for workplace violations – like violating company Internet policy.

Furthermore, the judge said, firing a disabled worker because of fear of potential violence stands as a legitimate, non-discriminatory business decision.

Why? Employers are not required to retain potentially dangerous employees simply because they are disabled.

If that were so, companies would face an employment paradox: They couldn’t fire employees for fear of violating the ADA, but they’d still be in jeopardy of negligence if those same suspect employees hurt their co-workers.

Analysis: Employers are permitted to take action
It’s a well-established fact: Companies have an obligation to provide employees with a workplace that’s as safe as it can possibly be.

If an employer can reasonably guess an employee may be prone to violence, it’s within its bounds to fire that person – even if that worker has a disability.

Cite: Calandriello v. Tennessee Processing Center

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