Recent Decision Explores Issues of Mental Disability and Violence in the Workplace

Friday, July 24, 2015

A federal district court recently grappled with whether an employer’s termination of an employee for engaging in violent behavior was lawful, where the employee’s behavior was related to an underlying mental impairment.  Joining other courts, the district court found that the employer was justified in letting the employee go for unacceptable workplace behavior, even though the conduct may have resulted from her underlying conditions with anxiety and depression.

In Felix v. Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Felix was employed as a customer service agent and driving test proctor.  Her job involved both working behind a counter to process driver’s license applications, and administering road tests.  During her employment, Felix experienced anxiety at work that resulted in panic attacks.  Her employer accommodated these incidents by letting Felix take breaks to do breathing exercises and calm down.

The incident leading to Felix’s termination occurred after she suffered a particularly acute panic attack, when a supervisor found her lying on the floor and crying loudly while trying to speak.  She had visible cuts on her wrist and could be heard saying things like “everybody hates you” and “they want to get rid of you.”  After an ambulance arrived and Felix calmed down, she was moved to a break room.  The next day, Felix was informed that she would need to undergo an independent medical exam to determine whether she was fit to return to duty, as the DOT was concerned both for her own safety and the safety of applicants with whom she drove.  Ultimately, the medical examination concluded that Felix remained at increased risk for potentially violent behavior toward herself and others.  Based on those results, the DOT terminated her employment on the grounds that she was unfit for duty.

Affirming the DOT’s decision, the court determined that it was undisputed that Felix’s termination was due to her behavior, which led the DOT to determine she was unfit for duty.  The court noted that, absent a disability, the DOT would have been justified in terminating any employee who engaged in similar behavior.  Although Felix argued that the DOT was wrong in its assessment of her fitness for duty, the court explained that was beside the point:  the issue was not whether the DOT’s reliance on the medical report was wrong, but whether the DOT’s explanation for her termination was dishonest and pretext for terminating her because of a disability.  In short, the court found that the DOT was not required to tolerate Felix’s conduct, and that her termination was due entirely to unacceptable workplace conduct, not because of a disability.