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Termination of Employee Who Threatened to Kill Co-Workers Not ADA Violation

    Client Alerts
  • July 02, 2009

In some situations where an employee has violated the employer’s rules of conduct, the employee will claim that the violation was the result of a psychological disability protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The employee then claims that any disciplinary action taken as a result of such behavior constitutes discrimination or failure to reasonable accommodate under the ADA.  A new Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision illustrates the limits of the ADA’s protections when it comes to serious employee misconduct.

In Bodenstab v. County of Cook, the plaintiff was an anesthesiologist who confided to a co-worker that he was considering killing his supervisor and several co-workers.  This colleague reported the conversation to the police, who opened a criminal investigation.  The employer did not immediately fire the doctor, but allowed him to enter an in-patient psychiatric treatment program.  He was diagnosed with major psychiatric disorders, but was discharged three months later, with limitations on his ability to work in stressful work environments.  The hospital then initiated disciplinary actions against the doctor, and terminated him based upon the previous threats.  He sued under the ADA, alleging that the reasons given for the termination were pretext for the hospital’s not wanting to accommodate his medical situation.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.  It concluded that the hospital had articulated legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the termination: the plaintiff’s threats to kill his co-workers.  The court noted that under the ADA, there is no obligation to reasonable accommodate conduct that violates disciplinary rules, even if the conduct is alleged to be a result of the underlying psychological disorder.  The ADA requires employers to accommodate disabilities, not conduct.

This matter was complicated by the three month delay between the death threats and the termination decision.  In most cases, employers should make the decision on appropriate disciplinary action soon after the behavior occurs, and not wait until the employee seeks treatment and requests accommodations.  If the employer waits, this opens factual questions as to the actual motivation for the later disciplinary decision.  In this case, the Seventh Circuit apparently concluded that delaying the disciplinary process due to the employee’s placement in an intensive, in-patient treatment program, did not raise questions as to the actual motivation for the subsequent termination decision.