About Us  |  About Cheetah®  |  Contact Us

Depressed employee who threatened to kill coworkers not ‘qualified’ under disability law

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

Even assuming an employee was disabled by major depressive disorder, he could not show he was “qualified” at the time he was fired because he repeatedly threatened to kill coworkers in “chilling detail,” explained the Ninth Circuit. Noting that an “essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others,” the appeals court affirmed summary judgment for the employer on his claims under Oregon’s disability discrimination law (Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc., July 28, 2015, Owens, J.).

The employee, who had been treated for major depressive disorder since 1999, was a welder for the employer for many years without incident. Things changed in 2010 when he and his coworkers started having issues with a supervisor whom they claimed bullied them and made life miserable. A coworker complained in January 2011 and an HR director held a meeting with the coworker and the employee. Soon thereafter, the employee told coworkers that he was going to bring a gun to work and shoot several supervisors when they did walkthroughs. The coworkers reported this to management. When the senior HR manager called the employee, he confirmed the threats and would not rule out following through. She suspended him.

The police were notified and the employee confirmed the threats and admitted to suicidal thoughts. He was taken to a hospital and placed on a mental hold for six days. The employer approved medical leave beyond that and the employee received treatment. His health care providers believed his threats were a symptom of his major depressive disorder. They released him, suggesting that he not work with his former supervisors, but that was not feasible.

Termination, lawsuit. After the employee’s leave expired, the employer considered him a continuing threat and fired him. He filed suit, alleging violations of Oregon’s disability discrimination statute. The court granted summary judgment for the employer, finding that his threats to kill supervisors rendered him “unqualified” under the state law.

Employee was not “qualified.” Affirming, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the employee failed to make out a prima facie case. Under the Oregon disability law, like the ADA, “an individual is qualified for a position if the individual, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of that position,” wrote the court. Even assuming the employee in this case were disabled, he could not show that he was qualified at the time of his discharge because an “essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others.” An employee is simply not qualified when stress leads him to threaten to kill his coworkers in chilling detail and on multiple occasions (here, at least five times). This was true regardless of whether his threats stemmed from his major depressive disorder.

No accommodation required here. The appeals court noted that a contrary rule would place employers in an impossible position and employers are not required to retain an employee whose unacceptable behavior threatens the safety of others, even if the behavior stems from a mental disability. The court rejected the employee’s assertion that, in the context of a credible threat of violence, an employer was required to do an individualized assessment of future risk. Nor was the court swayed by the employee’s claim that he just needed a “reasonable accommodation” in the form of different supervisors. Giving him 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,” the court averred.