discrimination, guns at work

A man fired for making “extreme” threats to kill his supervisor sues, claiming he was a disabled individual protected by the ADA. A federal court ruled he may indeed have been disabled, but … 

… that didn’t necessarily mean his job was protected by the ADA.

Planned ‘to take out management’

Timothy Mayo was a welder for Oregon-based PCC Structurals, a superalloy, aluminum and titanium casting company. He suffered from major depressive disorder. Medication and treatment allowed him to work without significant incident for several years — until a supervisor started getting under his skin.

Mayo and a few of his co-workers began having issues with a supervisor who they claimed bullied them and made work life miserable.

Mayo and the workers met with HR to discuss the situation. Shortly after the meeting, Mayo made threatening comments to — but not directed at — some of his co-workers.

Examples pulled from court documents:

  • He said he “fe[lt] like coming down with a shotgun an[d] blowing off” the heads of the supervisor and another manager.
  • He told another worker he planned to “com[e] down on day [shift] to take out management.”
  • He then explained that “all that [he] would have to do to shoot [the supervisor] is show up at 1:30 in the afternoon” because “that’s when all the supervisors would have their walk-through.”

Mayo’s co-workers reported these threats to management, which confronted him about them.

Asked if he’d carry out his threats, Mayo said “he couldn’t guarantee he wouldn’t do that.”

Mayo was then suspended and barred from company property. PCC also notified the police.

When a police officer visited Mayo at his home, Mayo admitted to making the threats. Then he elaborated that he had two or three people in mind, including his supervisor.

Asked if he’d follow through on his threats, Mayo responded, “Not tonight.”

With Mayo’s consent, the officer took him to a hospital where he was placed into custody.

FMLA leave

Mayo was in custody for six days due to the danger he posed to himself and others. He then took medical leave under the FMLA and Oregon Family Leave Act for two months.

Toward the end of his leave, a psychologist cleared Mayo to return to work, but recommended he get a new supervisor. Shortly after, he was terminated.

Mayo then sued PCC, claiming disability discrimination under Oregon’s counterpart to the ADA. He said his threats were caused by his disability, and since he was fired because of his threats, he was essentially fired because he was disabled.

The case went before a federal district court, which granted summary judgment to PCC, dismissing Mayo’s case.

‘May be disabled, but …’

Mayo appealed, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard his appeal.

In court, Mayo argued that he was a protected individual under the ADA.

But to be protected, the court said Mayo had to show that he:

  • suffered from a disability under the ADA
  • is an ADA qualified individual, and
  • he suffered an adverse employment action because of his disability.

The court ruled that Mayo may have been disabled under the ADA — but it ruled he wasn’t qualified for ADA protections because he couldn’t perform essential functions of his job, with or without an accommodation.

The essential functions he couldn’t perform: handling stress and interacting with others.

It said:

“Even if Mayo were disabled (which we assume for this appeal), he cannot show that he was qualified at the time of his discharge. An essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others. …

“And while an employee can be qualified despite adverse reactions to stress, he is not qualified when that stress leads him to threaten to kill his co-workers in chilling detail and on multiple occasions. …

“The Act does not require an employer to retain a potentially violent employee. Such a requirement would place the employer on a razor’s edge — in jeopardy of violating the Act if it fired such an employee, yet in jeopardy of being deemed negligent if it retained him and he hurt someone. The Act protects only “qualified” employees, that is, employees qualified to do the job for which they were hired; and threatening other employees disqualifies one. …

“While the ADA and Oregon disability law protect important individual rights, they do not require employers to play dice with the lives of their workforce. We thus conclude that PCC’s actions in this case were lawful.”

Mayo claimed that a reasonable accommodation would have been to assign him another supervisor, but the court said another disturbing incident may have occurred if he had returned to PCC and faced similarly stressful conditions.

In a nutshell: PCC couldn’t provide Mayo with a reasonable accommodation that would allow him to perform all of the essential functions of his job.

Case dismissed.

Frustration, jokes don’t disqualify individuals

In a footnote to its ruling, the court stressed that this case was riddled with “extreme facts” — i.e., serious, credible threats of violence toward co-workers. That helped make the issue somewhat black and white — PCC had to let Mayo go or risk being accused of negligence if he did hurt someone.

The court inferred that not all cases will be as cut and dried, and it warned employers that “off-handed expressions of frustration or inappropriate jokes wouldn’t necessarily render an individual non qualified” for ADA protections.

Translation: In most cases it’s wise for employers to enter the interactive process and seek out reasonable accommodations if a worker’s grumblings don’t amount to direct threats.

Cite: Mayo v. PCC Structurals Inc.

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