Employer Need Not Retain or Accommodate Employee with Mental Disability, Where the Condition Causes him to Make Repeated Threats of Violence Against Supervisors and Co-Workers

Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc., No.13-35643, 2015 DJDAR 8590 (9th Cir. July 29, 2015).

The plaintiff in this case suffered from major depressive disorder, but with treatment and medication he performed his job without incident for a number of years. At some point, however, he began to make repeated and detailed plans, which he shared with his co-workers, about how he was going to kill—in gruesome manner–his supervisors and other workers. When he told the employer that he “couldn’t guarantee” he wouldn’t carry out these plans, he was terminated and barred from the premises. He subsequently was hospitalized, received treatment for several months, and sought reinstatement to his job, which the employer refused.

He sued, claiming disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and an analogous state statute in Oregon, and alleged that his disturbing comments and statements were “symptoms of and caused by” his disability, making his termination discriminatory.

The district court and the Ninth Circuit disagreed. To prove an ADA claim of unlawful discharge, an employee must establish a prima facie case by showing (1) he is a disabled person, within the meaning of the statute; (2) he is a “qualified individual” with a disability; and (3) he suffered an adverse employment action due to his disability. A “qualified individual” is a person who, “with or without reasonable accommodation,” can perform “the essential functions of the job.”

Following several other circuit decisions with similar facts, the Ninth Circuit holds that “while an employee can be qualified despite adverse reactions to stress in the workplace,” he cannot be “qualified” when the stress leads him to “threaten to kill his co-workers in chilling detail.” Even assuming that the threats stemmed from his disability, requiring employers to retain such workers “would place the employer in an impossible position,” and would force the employer “to choose between ADA liability and a hostile work environment.”

In an sympathetic final paragraph, the court acknowledges that “depression and mental illness are serious problems that effect millions of persons, including judges and lawyers,” and that many such persons are capable of working despite their “struggles” with these ailments. But the ADA, concludes the court, does not require employers to “simply cross their fingers and hope that [an employee’s] violent threats will ring hollow.”