Human resource professionals often must deal with angry or upset employees following performance or other evaluations that criticize their work performance. If the employee is suspected of potentially violent behavior, the employer may be especially sensitive to concerns that the disgruntled employee could seek to act out against those persons he or she views as responsible for the negative job consequences.
This summer, in Jackson v. PLANCO, a non-precedential decision from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the court rejected a claim of ADA and FMLA discrimination from a terminated employee observed viewing gun websites following a negative performance review. The plaintiff suffered from various physical infirmities that caused him to miss work. At the same time, his supervisors began a performance management process based on overall poor job performance. He was offered a demotion to a position with fewer demands and responsibilities, but became angry and confrontational during the meeting, claiming that the supervisors were trying to terminate him due to his physical issues.
Directly after the meeting, the plaintiff was observed by his supervisors viewing several gun websites on his work computer. Fearing for their personal safety, the supervisors reported this behavior to human resources, and the plaintiff was terminated for violation of the company's Internet use policy. He sued, alleging that the reason provided for the termination was pretext for ADA and FMLA discrimination and retaliation.
The Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of the lawsuit on summary judgment. The court noted that the plaintiff bore the burden of demonstrating evidence of pretext. In this case, the supervisors' prior knowledge of the plaintiff's gun ownership did not require human resources to look more deeply into their motivation for reporting his Internet conduct. In the context of his angry response to the demotion offer, the plaintiff's behavior caused legitimate concerns on the part of his supervisors, regardless of their prior knowledge of his interest in guns.
Courts have shown little patience with claims of retaliation by employees who raised plausible fears within the company with regard to potentially violent behavior. Employers should not hesitate to take appropriate action in response to threats or legitimate concerns of violent behavior from employees upset over negative work consequences.