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Employee's PTSD Diagnosis May Excuse Violation of Disciplinary Policies

    Client Alerts
  • September 01, 2023

The Americans with Disabilities Act does not require employers to ignore or excuse serious violations of their rules of conduct. For example, an employee who brings a weapon to work in violation of the employer’s policy cannot claim that subsequent disciplinary action was discriminatory because the employee blames a mental disability for his or her ignorance of the workplace rule. However, a new decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals calls into question employers’ ability to strictly enforce disciplinary rules when they are aware of an underlying medical condition.

In Lee v. L3Harris Technologies Inc., the plaintiff was involved in a confrontation with a co-worker. The employer was aware of his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis, but terminated the plaintiff for disrupting the workplace and threatening his co-worker. He sued, claiming disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of the ADA. The district court dismissed the suit on summary judgment, finding that the employer had the right to enforce its disciplinary rules.

The Ninth Circuit reversed this decision in part, remanding the discrimination claims for trial. The appellate court noted that the district court found that the threats made during the confrontation were not serious or credible enough to conclude that the plaintiff was not qualified to perform his job. The plaintiff also introduced enough evidence to create a factual issue over whether the employer used its knowledge of the plaintiff’s PTSD diagnosis as the reason for the termination decision.

This case demonstrates that federal courts may require employers to accommodate workers with known disabilities by refraining from termination as the response to relatively minor infractions of workplace conduct rules. These cases are highly fact-specific, meaning that the seriousness of the violation and nature of the workplace will be factors in making this determination. Employers should refrain from making snap judgments about disciplinary violations when they are aware of a potential connection between the incident and the perpetrating employee’s known underlying medical condition.

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