Employment Law Daily Veteran’s disclosure of PTSD after disciplinary termination was ‘too little, too late’
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Monday, September 16, 2019

Veteran’s disclosure of PTSD after disciplinary termination was ‘too little, too late’

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

The employee’s communication with the HR manager disclosing her PTSD as the reason for her outbursts was not a request for a workplace accommodation but was instead “designed to excuse unacceptable behavior and dodge coworkers she did not care for.”

A call center employee who did not disclose that she was a veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) until after her employer decided to terminate her for violating the code of conduct—based on her outbursts with coworkers and unprofessional conduct with managers—failed to defeat summary judgment on her ADA and state-law claims. A federal court in Maine found she did not show how her requested accommodations—a transfer away from the coworkers or the ability to telecommute—would allow her to perform the “coworker-interactive requirements” of her job. Moreover, even if her discharge was based on disability-related misbehavior, it was not discriminatory since Wayfair treated her the same way it treated non-disabled employees (Trahan v. Wayfair Maine, LLC, September 6, 2019, Walker, L.).

Workplace “clique” triggered PTSD. When the employee was hired by to work at a Wayfair call center, she did not disclose her PTSD. When “triggered,” she experienced flashbacks that returned her to a traumatic experience and shifted her perception of events, making her feel that people were out to get her. She began having such “triggers” after she was assigned to train with three women who formed a “clique” from which she was excluded.

Outburst, eye-rolling. The employee’s problems with the clique escalated after an interaction that occurred after less than two months on the job, when one of the coworkers answered a question she had asked another. This resulted in her responding, “I was not talking to you, mind your own business” and ended in her calling them bitches, throwing her headset, and slamming down her phone before walking off. When management met with her to discuss the incident, she complained that the coworkers were always talking about her and were a “bunch of bitches.” She also sat with her arms crossed and rolled her eyes repeatedly, which was construed as very rude and unprofessional.

Termination decision. The HR manager and site manager subsequently agreed that she should be sent home for the day, and when she was brought in to meet with them, she again rolled her eyes and referred to her coworkers as bitches. After she was escorted to the exit, the two decided that the employee would be terminated the next morning for violating the company’s rules of conduct, which require employees to interact with respect and courtesy.

Disclosure of PTSD. Later that evening, the employee left a voicemail for the HR manager in which she disclosed that she was “a veteran with severe PTSD,” stated that the coworkers’ treatment of her caused her triggers, and offered to provide medical documentation. The HR manager spoke with her by phone the next day and expressed skepticism that the incidents would have triggered PTSD symptoms and informed her that the behavior she exhibited would not be tolerated, but they had not yet decided what to do. In response, the employee asked if she could be moved away from the coworkers or be allowed to telecommute. The HR manager consulted with the HR director and ultimately terminated the employee the next day.

Didn’t explain how accommodation would help. Through her voicemail to the HR manager and their subsequent phone calls, the employee provided sufficient information for Wayfair to understand that she attributed her misbehavior to a mental health condition. She also requested to be transferred away from the individuals with whom she had been in conflict or to be allowed to work from home. However, she failed to articulate how either modification would make her more capable of engaging in the “coworker-interactive requirements” of the workplace. Indeed, she did not show that telecommuting “relieves Wayfair consultants of coworker interaction, obviates the need to interact professionally with coworkers regardless of the perception of social cliques, slights and similar challenges, or minimizes the significance of past violations of Wayfair’s rules of conduct.”

“Too little, too late.” Her communication with the HR manager about her PTSD was “an excuse for her past transgression of Wayfair’s rules of conduct” which came once her firing was imminent. The First Circuit found such efforts in a similar case to be “too little, too late.” Her outburst with her coworkers was the culmination of what began with her “subjective experience of annoyance” following a “demeaning” response to her own question. She then claimed she “started to sweat because the amount of commotion between people’s tones and voices and talking over each other is a lot for her to handle,” and “started to black out.” On this record, the court found she failed to demonstrate that she “could not have exercised her proposed accommodation by not engaging or by disengaging at the first experience of annoyance.”

Discharge not discriminatory. The record also did not support a finding that she was terminated based in whole or in part on her disability. The court squarely rejected her contention that because her PTSD produced her unacceptable behavior, Wayfair’s decision to terminate her based on that behavior was direct evidence of disability discrimination. This was faulty logic as an employer can sanction disability-related misbehavior. It just can’t sanction it more harshly than it would sanction the same behavior in non-disabled employees.

Decision made before disability disclosure. Here, it was undisputed that the HR manager and the site manager had already agreed that the employee would be fired before she disclosed in her voicemail that her conduct was triggered by PTSD. It was also undisputed that she was not the only employee that the call center had terminated for unprofessional interactions with coworkers, and that no other employee received discipline short of termination due to an emotional outburst or fit of anger in the work area.

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