By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.
A pro se employee with a history of threatening or abusive conduct was fired because he repeatedly exhibited unacceptable and dangerous behavior and not because of his PTSD, ruled a federal district court in Alabama. And the fact that the behavior may have been precipitated by his PTSD did not present an issue under the ADA, the court stated, granting summary judgment against his disability discrimination claims. His Title VII race bias claim failed as well (Bell v. WestRock Services, Inc.
, June 17, 2016, Grande, C.).
The long-term mill employee, a black male combat veteran, was diagnosed with PTSD in 2006. He believed that most people saw him as a "monster" because of his size (6 foot, 2 inches tall and 346 pounds) and history of blowing over disagreements with coworkers. He was suspended multiple times for abusive behavior, including telling another employee who "broke wind" in his presence that he would meet him elsewhere to fight.
In 2012, he signed a last chance agreement (LCA) and attended anger-management classes paid for by the employer. The next year, he pushed a coworker during a dispute over moving rail cars and was terminated by the general manager for violating the LCA and because of his continued aggressive behavior and the danger he presented to others.
After he filed a grievance, the employer agreed to consider re-hiring him if he attended additional anger management training. He completed a 45-day in-house PTSD program through the VA hospital but because the company had received multiple complaints on its hotline voicing safety concerns if he returned to work, the general manager decided not to rehire him. He subsequently sued, asserting claims of race and disability discrimination.
Although the employee argued that his termination or the decision to not rehire him was motivated by racial discrimination, he was unable to show that similarly situated employees outside his classification were treated more favorably. He pointed to another employee who was purportedly rehired after he was fired for violating a LCA when he was caught looking at porn on the computer but he did not know the details of his circumstances. Moreover, his misconduct was of an entirely different nature than the employee’s misconduct.
As to a second alleged comparator, who despite a prior incident of harassing a female coworker was only given anger management training after he purportedly stated that he felt "like killing me somebody today," there was no evidence he had any other incidents after attending the anger management classes. Nor was there any indication that either comparator had an extensive history of misconduct. And, said the court, the second alleged comparator appeared to have been treated the same as the employee, who was also sent to anger management classes after engaging in threatening and abusive behavior.
And even if he could establish a prima facie case, the employer had a legitimate reason for firing him—his repeated aggressive behavior and violation of the LCA—which the employee failed to show was pretextual.
Turning to his disability discrimination claim, the court pointed out that the ADA now specifically lists PTSD as a type of impairment that substantially limits brain function. Additionally, observed the court, the term "Major Life Activities" has been expanded to expressly include "interacting with others," which is what the employee appeared to have difficulty with, the court noted, finding that he was disabled under the ADA.
However, there was no evidence that his termination or the decision not to rehire him was discriminatory. He testified that he believed the decision not to rehire him was related to his disability because the HR Manager purportedly said "he’s the one that will come out there and shoot ‘em up, like go postal, you know." The HR manager, however, was not the decisionmaker. Even if he played a role in the decisions, his reference to the employee’s dangerous and explosive nature did not demonstrate that the decisions were motivated by discriminatory animus toward his disability, the court stated. Acknowledging that "fear for coworkers’ safety undoubtedly was part of the reason for Defendant’s decisions to fire and not to rehire Plaintiff," the court explained that even "if the fear that Plaintiff would ‘shoot em up’ is related to Plaintiff’s disability ‘the ADA does not immunize disabled employees from discipline or discharge for incidents of misconduct in the workplace.’"
Agreeing with the rationale of cases from the Middle District of Florida that provide that "the law is well settled that the ADA is not violated when an employer discharges an individual based on the employee’s misconduct, even if the misconduct is related to a disability," the court found that he failed to support his claim for discrimination based on a disability.