Court of Appeal Holds Employer Does Not Violate FEHA By Terminating Bipolar Employee Who Violated Employer's Policy Against Making Threats Of Violence Against Co-Workers

Can an employer terminate an employee whose physician-diagnosed disability (bipolar disorder) caused her to make threats of violence against co-workers without violating the provisions of California's Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA") forbidding discrimination against employees because of a disability or a medical condition?  

During the beginning stages of a manic episode, Linda Wills arrived for work and after waiting a few minutes to be admitted to a secured police department facility she was assigned to, Wills became angry, swore, and told police department employees at the facility she added them to her "Kill Bill" list for leaving her out in the heat. A few days later, Wills' physician placed her on a medical leave to treat her manic episode.  

Other incidents followed. While on medical leave, Wills forwarded to at least one co-worker a ring tone containing video who a coworker complained disturbed her on account of the tenor and the content of the angry ring tone culminating "in a shrieking directive: 'I'm going to blow this [explicative] up if you don't check your messages right now! . . . [explicative]."  Other email messages followed, including one which stated "I say that because I'm covering my [explicative], just in case one of you evil [explicative] feel like punishing me again by calling the police or showing them my numerous 'so called hate' emails."

After placing Wills on administrative leave and conducting an investigation, including an investigation of Wills' complaints that she was harassed, the Orange County Superior Court terminated Wills' employment for violating various policies, including a policy forbidding workplace violence or making threats of workplace violence.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Orange County Superior Court and against Wills on all of her claims that the Orange County Superior Court discriminated against her on account of her disability (bipolar disorder) and violated the FEHA in various ways when it terminated her employment on two grounds: (1) Wills failed to exhaust her administrative remedies by first submitting to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing a complaint identifying the alleged conduct that later formed the basis for her lawsuit, and (2) the Orange County Superior Court met its burden of showing a non-pretextual, non-discriminatory reason for terminating Wills' employment. 

 On appeal, in a narrowly drawn decision distinguishing between misconduct involving violence or threats of violence from other types of misconduct, in Wills v. Superior Court of Orange County the Court of Appeal held on the facts of the case before it that "Wills's disability discrimination claim fails because an employer may reasonably distinguish between disability caused misconduct and the disability itself when the misconduct includes threats or violence against coworkers." In so holding the Court of Appeal expressly rejected Wills' contention that the FEHA "prohibits an employer from terminating or disciplining an employee for workplace misconduct caused by a  disability in the same manner as it prevents an employer from discriminating against an employee for having a disability."  

On appeal, the Court of Appeal held, also, that all but one of Wills' claims failed for the additional reason she did not identify in the complaint she submitted to the DFEH before filing suit the alleged discrimination and marked the box stating she was denied family/medical leave, which is not what she later sued for. 

As welcome as this decision is, employers should remain mindful of what the Court of Appeal did not decide. While the Court clearly holds misconduct in the form of violence or threats of violence can be the subject of discipline without violating the FEHA, the Court of Appeal did not reach the question of what other types of misconduct would be subject to a similar rule. Employers should therefore exercise caution when deciding whether to terminate or discipline employees for other types of misconduct when the misconduct is the result of a disability or a medical condition.

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