Labor & Employment Law Daily Submarine design specialist’s delusional behavior was security risk, adverse actions weren’t religious discrimination
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Friday, October 4, 2019

Submarine design specialist’s delusional behavior was security risk, adverse actions weren’t religious discrimination

By Harold S. Berman J.D.

The employee was suspended and then ordered to undergo psychotherapy after displaying paranoid and delusional behavior and could not claim religious discrimination; the employer was solely concerned about the security risk she posed.

A design specialist for U.S. Navy submarines who claimed she was being targeted by radio frequencies could not claim religious or disability discrimination after her company suspended her pending an investigation and later ordered her to undergo psychotherapy as a condition of returning to work, a federal court in Connecticut ruled. The court found the company was motivated solely by security concerns, given the sensitive nature of the employee’s work and her high-level security clearance. She not only refused psychiatric treatment, but later rejected the company’s alternative offer of faith-based psychotherapy. The employer was entitled to summary judgment against her discrimination and retaliation claims (Wade v. Electric Boat Corp., September 30, 2019, Chatigny, R.).

Targeted with radio frequencies? The employee worked for a company that designed and built nuclear submarines for the U.S. government. She required a “secret level” security clearance for her work. Her husband also worked for the company as a design specialist, and one day, he emailed the U.S. Navy’s research and development center for submarines, claiming that he and the employee had recently experienced “very powerful pulsed microwave frequencies and have been bombarded with them ever since.” The email went on to state they were “dreadfully aware” of the impact of radio frequencies used in weapons, and had been physically affected by the radio frequencies. The husband asked what they could do to protect themselves, and wanted to know why they were targeted.

Investigation and unpaid leave. Various staff at the Navy’s research and development center reviewed the email, and one noted that the Washington Naval Yard shooter had raised similar concerns. The company’s security personnel also reviewed the email and grew concerned, also noting the similarity to the perpetrator of the Washington Naval Yard mass shooting. The company launched an investigation and disabled the couple’s security badges so they could not access the facility. It also placed the plaintiff on unpaid leave the following day.

In her investigatory interview, the employee stated that she and her husband believed they were being followed by vehicles with obscured registration plates, that their former neighbor was using radio frequencies on them, and that she may have felt radio frequencies at work. She reiterated her claims to the company’s medical director, who concluded the employee displayed an illogical thought process, poor judgment, and signs of paranoia and delusion.

Psychiatric treatment requirement. The employee told the medical director she was opposed to counseling, did not believe in medical science, and was very religious. At the medical director’s request, the employee agreed to surrender her badge and be evaluated by a company-designated psychiatrist to determine whether she suffered from a condition that resulted in paranoia and delusions. Two independent psychiatrists evaluated the employee and diagnosed her with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, Recurrent Episode, Mild. They determined she could perform her essential job functions, but required her to undergo psychiatric treatment as a condition of returning to work.

However, the employee refused treatment, objecting that it conflicted with her religious beliefs. She sued the company and, the next month, requested that she meet with a pastor for “spiritual counseling” rather than a psychiatrist. When her request went unanswered, she resigned seven months later. Subsequently, the company’s attorney wrote that their independent psychiatrist would permit faith-based counseling with a specific counseling practice instead of psychiatric counseling. The employee rejected this offer, and so was never medically cleared to return. Her lawsuit alleged religious discrimination, perceived disability discrimination, and retaliation, variously in violation of Title VII, the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act.

Religious discrimination. The court dismissed the religious discrimination claims, finding no evidence from which a jury reasonably could conclude the company discriminated against her based on her religion. There was no evidence of disparate treatment, and she could not show pretext. The company’s security director knew nothing of the employee’s religious beliefs when he disabled the employee’s security badge, launched an investigation, and referred her to the company medical director for evaluation. Nor did any other decision-maker have knowledge of her religious beliefs. Consequently, no religious discriminatory intent could be inferred from the company placing the employee on unpaid leave.

Nor could discriminatory intent be inferred from the company’s refusal to reinstate her unless she underwent treatment. Although the medical director knew she had strong religious beliefs and was opposed to medical science when he ordered a psychiatric evaluation, the employee later admitted she had no evidence the medical director felt negatively toward her because of her religious beliefs.

The employee could not make out a prima facie case of discrimination absent evidence that the medical director was motivated to order a psychiatric evaluation because of her religious beliefs. Rather, the company plausibly explained that the medical director grew concerned over the employee’s paranoid and delusional comments during his own evaluation, particularly given the sensitive security situation, and that the employee held a top secret clearance.

The employee similarly could not show that the two psychiatrists harbored any religious animosity toward her, or discriminated against her when they ordered psychiatric treatment as a condition to return to work. The company also had offered faith-based psychotherapy as an option, which she rejected without explanation.

Perceived disability discrimination. Nor could the employee pursue her disability discrimination claims. Although she could conceivably show that the company regarded her as disabled, she failed to show she suffered any adverse employment action because of her disability. The employer had placed her on unpaid leave based solely on its security concerns. The employee admitted the company had an obligation to investigate the Navy’s stated concerns. And the company’s decision to require her to undergo psychotherapy was based on the recommendation of two independent psychiatrists.

Retaliation. The employee’s retaliation claim also failed. She alleged the company retaliated against her “for supporting her husband” and “opposing unlawful employment practices” against him, but did not state how she supported her husband, how the company retaliated against her, or under what statute she brought her claim.

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