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Disciplined For Acting Crazy? Diabiliity Discrimination?

Can an employer discipline an employee who acts somewhat crazy and threatening, in spite of the fact the employee claims that this bizarre behavior is simply part of her disability, and disciplining her for it is discrimination?

Recently, the California Court of Appeal faced the issue of whether an employee who claims a mental disability (which makes her act bizarre and threatening) can defend herself against discipline, by claiming that the cause of her behavior is her disability. Linda Wills was an employee of the Orange County Superior Court. Part of her duties included working in the Anaheim Police Department’s lockup facility, plainly a difficult environment. On one occasion, she told an officer there who had left her outside in the heat and delayed her entry into the facility that she had put him and another person on the “Kill Bill” list. Ms. Wills also left a voicemail where she threatened to “blow this bitch up”. The Orange County Superior Court decided that she posed a threat and moved to terminate her. Wills was treated by a doctor, and had evidence that she was the victim of a manic episode, arising from her bi-polar disorder, which ended and that she was able subsequently to return to work without restrictions. Nevertheless, the Orange County Court decided to terminate her employment.

Ms. Wills sued for disability discrimination, and the trial court granted a motion dismissing her entire case, finding that there were legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for firing her, in view of the threats she made.

Wills tried to argue that federal court decisions from the 9th Circuit held that “Conduct resulting from a disability is considered to be part of the disability, rather than a separate basis for termination.” However, the Court found that disability-caused misconduct, involving threats or violence against coworkers, belongs in a special category, and that such disability-caused threat and/or violence must be dealt with strictly, because the Americans With Disabilities Act does not require “that employers countenance dangerous misconduct, even if that misconduct is a result of the disability.” The court supported this reasoning, finding that because employers have an obligation to provide all employees with a safe work environment that is free from threats and violence (See Labor Code §6400 & 6403), the disabled, threatening employee’s rights must give way for the greater good.

This Court also found that this was not a disability that the employer could have addressed through an accommodation, such as by altering the employee’s work schedule or work environment. Thus, the Court found the grounds the employer articulated for the termination to be a legitimate non-discriminatory defense. The court of appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling dismissing Wills entire case.

Wills’ case represents a common sense solution to a very difficult problem, and gives employers some very constructive guidance for dealing with some mental disabilities that may impact the safety of the work environment. If you or your business have a question or issue that you would like to consult us about, please e-mail us at