Employment Law Daily PTSD diagnosis following knife attack unknown to employer; disability bias claims fail
Monday, January 8, 2018

PTSD diagnosis following knife attack unknown to employer; disability bias claims fail

By David Yucht, J.D. and Ronald Miller, J.D.

An employee who developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a workplace knife attack by a coworker failed to prove that his termination was the result of disability discrimination or retaliation or that he was subjected to a hostile work environment, ruled a federal district court in New York. Because the employee failed to offer any evidence that a decision-maker was aware of his PTSD before he was suspended and terminated, he failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Accordingly, the employer was granted its motion for summary judgment (Murray v. Cerebral Palsy Associations of New York, Inc., January 2, 2018, Ramos, E.).

Workplace violence. The employer operated a residential services program for individuals with disabilities and traumatic brain injuries. The employee worked as a direct care counselor responsible for providing assisted daily living care for the employer’s clients. While at work, he was involved in an altercation with another employee who ended up stabbing him. He was transported by ambulance to the hospital and was released the following day. Subsequently, the employee developed an infection because of the knifing.

Following the employee’s release from the hospital, he went on approved worker’s compensation leave to receive treatment for his wound. While receiving treatment, the employee’s physician expressed concern regarding his handling of the stabbing, and referred him to a psychologist. He was eventually diagnosed with PTSD.

Several months later, the employee expressed a desire to return to work and provided HR with a letter from his psychologist clearing him to return without restrictions. The clearance letter did not mention that the employee had been diagnosed with PTSD, nor did it suggest that he suffered from lingering emotional or psychological effects of the stabbing. The employee alleged that he told HR about his PTSD diagnosis during at a meeting prior to his return.

Return to work. Because the employee’s previous position had been filled while he was on leave, he was assigned to a floater position upon his return to work. According to the employee, managers made comments about his mental state and capabilities, and questioned why he did not want to discuss the stabbing. On April 29, 2015, the employee had a confrontation with a staffing coordinator because he had not yet been assigned a work location for the day. While the employee’s wife spoke with the coordinator on the phone, she heard him screaming loudly in the background. His tantrum alleged continued when he spoke directly to the coordinator, including threatening to come to the office to kill him.

In a follow-up call by a supervisor the employee was asked if he was going to work that day. In response, he became belligerent and directed profanity and racial slurs towards the supervisor. Following this incident, the employee was suspended and subsequently terminated for violating the employer’s rule against using abusive or profane language, as well as other incidents with coworkers.

Disability discrimination. Alleging employment discrimination and retaliation on the basis of his PTSD, the employee sued his employer under the ADA and related state law claims. The employee asserted that the employer violated the ADA by suspending and later terminating him on account of his PTSD. In response, the employer moved for summary judgment. The court granted summary judgment dismissing the employee’s ADA discrimination claim.

In order to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must demonstrate: (1) his employer was subject to the ADA; (2) he is disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (3) he is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodation; and (4) he suffered an adverse employment action because of his disability.

For purposes of its summary judgment motion, the employer did not contest the first three elements of the employee’s ADA discrimination prima facie case. Instead, the employer contended that the employee had not established that he was suspended or terminated because of his PTSD. Specifically, the employer asserted that the record demonstrated that none of the individuals involved in the decision to suspend and terminate the employee had knowledge of his PTSD.

Here, the court pointed out that it was undisputed that individuals involved in the employee’s suspension and termination were unaware of his disability. The employee’s argument that at least some members of the HR department had knowledge of his PTSD so that it could be imputed to one of the decision-makers was unavailing. Rather, under Second Circuit law, a plaintiff alleging discrimination on account of his protected status must offer evidence that a decision-maker was personally aware of his protected status to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Because the employee was unable to establish that a decision-maker had actual knowledge of his PTSD, he was unable to survive summary judgment on this issue.

Hostile work environment. Likewise the court granted summary judgment dismissing the employee’s hostile work environment claim. The employee argued that comments about his mental state and capabilities allegedly made by supervisory personnel created a hostile work environment. However, assuming the factual claims were true, the court found that the employee failed to plead a hostile work environment claim. The court noted that the employee returned to work for less than two months after his leave of absence and that a handful of comments over such a short period of time were not sufficiently offensive, pervasive, and continuous to create an abusive working environment.

ADA retaliation. Additionally, the court granted summary judgment dismissing the employee’s ADA retaliation claim. The court noted that the complaint contained only one allegation of the employee complaining of discrimination or otherwise engaging in ADA-protected activity: that during a phone call with a supervisor regarding his suspension, he said “that he believed that he had been treated unfairly based on his disability.” However, the employee conceded that he did not tell this supervisor about his PTSD. Accordingly, he never complained about protected activity and therefore his retaliation claim failed.

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