Pa.: Case ‘Testing Outer Bounds of ADA’ Allowed to Proceed

Jan 20, 2015

In a case that “tests the outer bounds of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the context of workplace violence,” a district court refused to dismiss a suit based on the termination of a depressed worker suffering from homicidal thoughts.

The case presents “two competing but equally valid public policy interests—the need for a safe workplace, as weighed against the need to accommodate and treat mental illness,” the court stressed. Ruling in favor of the employer could discourage employees in crisis from seeking help while ruling for the affected employee “could subject employers to a daunting standard, torn between a legal requirement to accommodate mentally ill employees and the moral imperative of providing a safe workplace,” the court said.

Taj Walton, a warehouse worker employed through Spherion Staffing, suddenly experienced “suicidal ideations” on his way to work, followed by “homicidal ideations” while at work the following day. Realizing he needed immediate medical attention, Walton wrote this note to his supervisor asking for help:

“Please Help Call [telephone number provided] Mom [telephone number provided] Dad The police I’m scared and angry. I don’t know why but I wanna kill someone/anyone. Please have security accompany you if you want to talk to me. Make sure, please. I’m unstable. I’m sorry Taj.”

In the supervisor's absence, a security guard read the note and called the police. Walton was taken by the police to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with depression. He attempted numerous times to contact his supervisor to inform her about his diagnosis and intention to seek additional treatment but was unable to reach her. Walton then called Spherion’s headquarters and notified a human resources representative of his disability and need for medical care. The HR representative advised him to contact his supervisor and file for workers’ compensation benefits, which did not address his ongoing medical issues. Walton’s supervisor finally responded to him nearly three weeks after the episode and immediately terminated his employment, informing him that his health insurance policy was canceled.

Walton sued Spherion, alleging that he was fired due to his disability, in violation of the ADA and state law. He alleged that Spherion’s actions prevented him from receiving the medical care and treatment he needed. Spherion moved for judgment on the pleadings on the ground that the threat of violence took Walton outside the protection of the statutes.

Spherion argued that proclivities toward violence plainly disqualify a disabled person from protection under the ADA and state law. Further, it cites extensive case law establishing that an employee who is a direct threat to the safety of himself or others is not a qualified individual with a disability.

The court acknowledged that federal case law supports Spherion’s argument that a disabled person can be lawfully terminated for disability-related misconduct, “but only so long as the employer’s explanation is not a pretext for discrimination.”

Walton did not commit or threaten violent acts, but rather sought assistance, apologizing for his compromised mental state and expressing a desire not to engage in any threatening conduct, the court noted. His note was rooted in fear and intended to protect, rather than threaten, his colleagues.

“From a policy standpoint, in weighing the equally valid interests presented by this case, a credible argument can be made that failing to provide treatment to someone such as the Plaintiff, who has to some degree identified his need for treatment and sought help, would create a greater risk of violence, including violence directed to the employer who denied assistance,” the court said.Further, if a disabled employee who asks for help should be automatically terminated, the purpose for enacting the ADA and similar state laws is defeated, the court added.

In this case, approximately three weeks passed between the incident and the termination, during which Walton repeatedly contactedhis employer to give notice of his disability and need for medical treatment. “[I]f a genuine threat existed, it had passed, and Plaintiff was actively pursuing treatment that had the potential to control the newly discovered symptoms of his mental illness at the time of his termination,” the court said. Concluding that it was plausible that Walton was discharged as a result of his disability and need for urgent, and presumably expensive, medical attention, rather than as a result of any workplace threat, the court denied the employer’s motion for dismissal and allowed the case to proceed.

Walton v. Spherion Staffing LLC, E.D. Pa., Civ. Action No. 13-6896 (Jan. 13, 2015).

Rosemarie Lally, J.D., is a freelance legal writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.

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