Unacceptable Behavior Not Excused by Mental Illness

 

By Kimberly A. Klimczuk May 22, 2018
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​A school district employer that terminated an employee for inappropriate conduct caused by her disability did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), according to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

The plaintiff was an administrative assistant for the Berwyn South School District. Her duties included providing clerical support, interpreting and translating documents between English and Spanish, and maintaining an accurate record-keeping system. The plaintiff took FMLA leave from July 6 to Aug. 31, 2015, related to major depression and generalized anxiety disorder. During the plaintiff's leave, the district had combined the administrative offices for two of its elementary schools into one office building; as a result, when the plaintiff returned from her FMLA leave, she was placed in a shared office with two other administrative assistants.

On the plaintiff's first day back, the assistant principal asked her to translate a "Welcome Back to School" letter. The plaintiff stated that she couldn't do the translation because the noise and confusion in her office made it difficult for her to concentrate. She also said she had too many other things to do. According to the plaintiff, the principal told her that "she needed to multitask or else" and lunged at her. The plaintiff responded, "Or else, what?" The principal told the plaintiff she was being insubordinate.

On Sept. 2, the principal and the plaintiff met regarding the translations, and the plaintiff recorded the conversation with her cellphone. The principal again told the plaintiff she was being insubordinate.

The plaintiff felt anxious and called her therapist, who instructed her to call an ambulance. The plaintiff called 911 three times. She hung up the first two times; the third time, she reported that she was having a panic attack. When paramedics arrived and took the plaintiff out on a gurney, she yelled to the principal and assistant principal, in front of students and parents, "[Y]ou caused it. You did this to me. You both—you—did this to me."

The next day, the district placed the plaintiff on administrative leave due to unprofessional and insubordinate conduct toward her supervisor and her 911 hang-up calls. The plaintiff's doctor then sent a letter to the district requesting that the plaintiff be placed on medical leave. The district conducted an investigation into the plaintiff's behavior and ultimately terminated her employment due to her misconduct.

The plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming that she was terminated because of her disability and that the district had interfered with her rights under the FMLA. The court rejected her argument, noting that "when an employee engages in behavior that is unacceptable in the workplace … the fact that the behavior is precipitated by her mental illness does not present an issue under the Americans with Disabilities Act; the behavior itself disqualifies her from continued employment and justifies her discharge."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Persons with Psychiatric Disabilities]

The court dismissed the case against the school district and concluded that the district's decision to terminate the plaintiff based on her unprofessional and disruptive behavior, particularly at a time of heightened concerns regarding school security, did not violate the ADA or the FMLA.

Medina v. Berwyn South School District 100, N.D. Ill., No. 16 C 2189 (April 10, 2018).

Professional Pointer: This case is encouraging for employers that face challenging behaviors from employees with mental illness. However, because the outcome of a case like this will depend heavily on the facts surrounding a particular situation, employers should consult with experienced employment counsel before terminating or disciplining an employee for disability-related misconduct.

Kimberly A. Klimczuk is an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Springfield, Mass.

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