The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently denied judgment on the pleadings to an employer on an Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) claim of a terminated employee who had notified his supervisor that, inter alia, “I wanna kill someone/anyone.” Walton v. Spherion Staffing, LLC, No. 2-13-cv-06896-GAM (E.D. Pa Jan. 13, 2015). The court acknowledged that the case “tests the outer bounds of the Americans With Disabilities Act in the context of workplace violence.” However, viewing the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, as required under FRCP 12(c), the court concluded that the plaintiff had stated a plausible claim under the ADA that his employment was terminated because of his mental disability—depression—rather than as a result of workplace misconduct.
The facts “ably pleaded by Plaintiff’s counsel” established that plaintiff Taj Walton began his employment with defendant Spherion Staffing, LLC, in 2007. Spherion is a staffing agency that places employees in various work assignments. Spherion assigned the plaintiff to work at Tech Data Corp. in October 2011. On November 21, 2011, the plaintiff experienced suicidal ideations for the first time, while traveling to work at Tech Data. The next day, the plaintiff experienced suicidal thoughts again, and for the first time, homicidal ideations. In the words of the plaintiff’s counsel, “[r]ecognizing that he needed immediate medical attention,” the plaintiff wrote a note and left it for his Spherion supervisor, Lizelle Parks, at Tech Data. It read:
Lizelle, Please Help Call [telephone number provided] Mom [telephone number provided] Dad The police I’m scared and angry. I don’t know why but I wanna kill someone/anyone. Please have security accompany you if you want to talk to me. Make sure, please. I’m unstable. I’m sorry Taj.
Parks was not at the Tech Data site that day. However, a security guard read the note and called the police. The plaintiff waited outside for the police to arrive and drive him to a hospital. He was not restrained while waiting for the police.
Thereafter, the plaintiff was diagnosed with depression. For a couple of weeks, he tried to contact Parks to tell her of his depression diagnosis and his need for medical care. The plaintiff informed other Spherion employees of these facts while trying to communicate with Parks. When the plaintiff finally reached Parks, on December 11, she told him that his employment was terminated, his health insurance cancelled, and he was prohibited from working at any Spherion locations.
The plaintiff claimed that Spherion and Tech Data terminated his employment based on his disability, and failed to accommodate his depression, in violation of the ADA. Spherion moved for judgment on the pleadings, asserting that it had no choice but to fire the plaintiff for his potentially dangerous misconduct—that the plaintiff’s misconduct took him outside the protection of the ADA.
The district court acknowledged the difficult balance of interests presented by the facts before it—the protection of the plaintiff’s rights and need for treatment under the ADA versus Spherion’s obligation to provide a safe workplace for its employees. However, at the pleading stage, and drawing all inferences in favor of the plaintiff, the court determined that the plaintiff should be able to obtain discovery to try to establish his claim.
The court identified three primary bases for its decision. First, the court concluded that the plaintiff had not actually engaged in any misconduct, had not actively made any threat of harming anyone at the workplace. Instead, the plaintiff’s note was a “plea for help.” “Plaintiff neither committed nor threatened violent acts, but rather sought assistance.”
Second, the court acknowledged the substantial body of case law, cited by Spherion, holding that proclivities toward violence and threats toward coworkers are not protected under the ADA. Indeed, many employers have issued zero-tolerance policies regarding workplace violence, as recommended by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Moreover, Spherion emphasized an influential Seventh Circuit case, Palmer v. Circuit Court of Cook County Ill., 117 F.3d 351 (7th Cir. 1997), which notes that an employer puts itself in jeopardy of being deemed negligent if it retains a violent employee and he or she hurts someone at work. But the Pennsylvania district court found the Seventh Circuit’s analysis to be faulty—in the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions, employers would be immune from tort liability to an injured employee who is covered by workers’ compensation.
Third, the court suggested that Spherion might have prevailed on its Rule 12(c) motion if it had fired the plaintiff on the day he wrote the note revealing his homicidal ideations. On that day, Spherion had no knowledge that the plaintiff had a disability. Therefore, the plaintiff’s perceived misconduct could have been the only basis for his termination. But by the time Spherion terminated the plaintiff’s employment—some three weeks after his note— Spherion knew that the plaintiff had a disability. In the view of the court, “[u]nder the pleaded complaint, if a genuine threat existed, it had passed.” As a result, the court noted, there was a plausible inference from the complaint that Spherion discharged the plaintiff as a result of his disability and “need for urgent and presumably expensive medical attention, rather than as a result of any workplace threats.”
—John F. Stock, Benesch Friedlander Coplan & Aronoff LLP, Columbus, OH