N.J.: No Disability Bias Where Employer Didn’t Know of Disability

By Diane Cadrain Dec 16, 2014
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A warehouse employee with anger management issues stemming from a traumatic brain injury was unable to make out a claim of disability discrimination because his employer never knew that his behavior was caused by a disability, a New Jersey federal court ruled.

Shane Gandy, who worked in a Pepsi-Cola warehouse, had anger management issues after recovering from a coma in the wake of a catastrophic auto accident in 1999. He had a traumatic brain injury, a legitimate disability, but Pepsi claimed it never knew that his anger stemmed from a disability. When Gandy came back to the warehouse after almost a year out of work, his psychologist wrote a letter to his then-supervisor, Joe Puccio, stating that Gandy had psychological issues following a head injury, and acknowledging his behavior difficulties. There was no evidence of Puccio’s reaction to the note. Meanwhile, at work, Gandy had anger control problems that affected his relationships with his co-workers. After a second angry outburst, Pepsi sent Gandy to anger management counseling, which he completed successfully in 2008. At that time, the supervisor of that program wrote a letter to Gandy’s then-supervisor, Ruben Fuentes, stating that Gandy had acquired the skills to overcome his anger issues. Despite Gandy’s completion of the program, there was a third outburst, in which his anger turned to physical violence, and he was terminated.

Gandy sued Pepsi under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), claiming that he had a disability and that the company should have accommodated it. Pepsi asked the court to throw out the case at an early stage.

Pepsi claimed it didn’t know Gandy had a disability, despite the letters from the psychologist and the anger management program supervisor, and testimony from Gandy himself, stating that management knew about his disability and so did some of his co-workers.

The court stated that the ADA bars employers from discriminating on the basis of a disability, but that if an employer didn’t know of an employee’s disability, it could not have discriminated on that basis. There was no evidence, the court said, that Gandy told anyone that he had a mental/emotional/behavioral disability. Gandy pointed out an “obvious” scar on his head and said that Pepsi knew about the severe car accident in 1999 and should have concluded that he was disabled.

But the court said that would not have been a reasonable conclusion to draw, and that even the doctors' notes that Gandy provided to Pepsi would not support an inference that Gandy had a disability, a symptom of which is aggressive behavior. Gandy’s testimony that management “knew” about his disability was too conclusory and vague to raise a viable issue of whether it actually had knowledge, the court said.

The court dismissed the case.

Gandy v. Pepsi-Cola, D. N.J.,Civil Action No. 10-1932 (JEI/AMD) (Nov. 20, 2014).

Diane Cadrain is an attorney who has been writing about employment law issues for more than 20 years.
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