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Terminating Employee for Offensive Behavior Caused by Mental Disability Does Not Itself Constitute Disability Discrimination

Posted in 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, ADA, Case Updates, Fair Employment and Housing Act

In Wills v. Superior Court of Orange County (4th Appellate District, Division 3, April 13, 2011), plaintiff Linda Wills sued her employer, the Orange County Superior Court, for discrimination and harassment when she was terminated for exhibiting offensive and threatening behavior.

Plaintiff claimed she was suffering from bipolar disorder and that her behavior was the direct result of her disability.  The termination, she argued, constituted discrimination based on disability, which is prohibited under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

The superior court granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and the Court of Appeal affirmed, on two bases:

1) Plaintiff had failed to exhaust administrative remedies. In her administrative complaint Plaintiff specified that she was seeking to sue for denial of family/medical leave only, not the other causes of action she alleged in her complaint.  Thus, with respect to five of the six causes of action, the court found Plaintiff failed to exhaust administrative remedies.

With respect to the alleged disability discrimination claim, the Court did not address the exhaustion issue, since the Court found that the disability discrimination claim failed as a matter of law (see (2)).

2)  Plaintiff’s threatening behavior provided a legitimate, nondiscriminatory basis for the termination. In this respect, the Court of Appeal rejected Plaintiff’s argument, based on several 9th Circuit rulings, equating disability-caused misconduct with the disability itself.  In sum, an employer is permitted to terminate an employee for threatening or dangerous behavior caused by a disability, and such termination will not be deemed discriminatory.  In so ruling, the Court of Appeal observed that a contrary rule would create an insolvable dilemma for an employer, who is required both to refrain from disability discrimination and to ensure a safe work environment for his or her employees.