Employees who exhibit what appear to be mental or emotional issues while in the workplace or performing their job duties present some of the most difficult situations for employers. They may have a disability you may be required to accommodate under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They also may, at times at least, be unable to satisfactorily perform their job duties. Determining what rights they have, and what obligations you have under the ADA, can be very challenging.
Conduct Leads to Mental Disorder Diagnosis
A recent case from the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the distinction between “disability-related conduct” an employer may not use as a basis for an adverse employment action and “conduct that occurs as a result of a disability” that disqualifies an employee from the job.
A middle school teacher was terminated after the school district concluded her mental condition prevented her from satisfactorily performing her job within the requirements of the district’s policies.
The teacher, after what she described as a “deeply religious event” in which she lost consciousness and believed she was lifted up and carried eight to 10 feet away by a supernatural power, began to talk to students repeatedly about her experience both in person and via social media.
In describing the episode, the teacher said, “God had entered (her) body,” she had seen visions, and the experience had healed her chronic back pain. When she was directed to cease the conversations, she said she was unable to control what she said and that she had to keep speaking about her experience to prevent her back pain from returning. The teacher also made comments about the school being in the national news in the near future, which prompted the local sheriff’s office to visit her home for a wellness check because a recent school shooting had been in the news.
The district had the teacher undergo a fitness-for-duty evaluation, in which the physician found her incapable of performing her essential functions within the district’s policies. She obtained another evaluation from a doctor she selected, and the physician diagnosed her as having an unspecified personality and behavior disorder as well as a psychotic disorder.
Teacher’s Termination Upheld
The teacher sued for disability discrimination under the ADA and state law. The court noted an employer must “tolerate eccentric or unusual conduct caused by the employee’s mental disability, so long as the employee can satisfactorily perform essential functions of the job.” It stated an employer may not terminate an employee “for disability-related conduct that is not related to work performance and does not violate some work-place or societal rule.” But, the court also stated:
[A]n employer may legitimately fire an employee for conduct, even conduct that occurs as a result of a disability, if that conduct disqualifies the employee from his or her job.
Applying the principles, the court found the district’s policy prohibiting teachers from sharing their religious beliefs with public school students was job-related and consistent with the obligations of public education. Therefore, although the court noted the teacher’s behavior in sharing her views about her “religious experience” was conduct related to her disability, it ultimately found the conduct constituted a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for discharging her.
The court also addressed the teacher’s companion claim that the district had failed to accommodate her disability. It noted Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines provide “an employer must make reasonable accommodation to enable an otherwise qualified individual with a disability to meet . . . the employer’s conduct standards in the future.” The court noted, however, the guidance focused on prospective accommodations to permit the employee to perform the job, and an employer “is not required to excuse past misconduct.”
The court added once the teacher engaged in misconduct warranting termination, the district was within its right to proceed with disciplinary action rather than ignoring the misconduct and offering accommodations for her to remain employed. Lockhart v. Marietta City Schools.
This case offers several lessons for employers dealing with an employee whose behavior is exhibiting what may be mental or emotional issues:
1. Consider whether the behavior is merely eccentric rather than indicative of a job performance issue.
2. Review whether the conduct is work-related, providing you with an operational or business reason to address it.
3. If the employee’s conduct is work-related, look at whether the behavior violates significant personnel policies. If so, you may impose disciplinary action even if the conduct is caused by the mental or emotional troubles.
4. A fitness-for-duty evaluation may provide a medical determination that the employee is incapable of performing the job duties, in which case you could conclude she is disqualified from the position and thus terminate employment.