- A military veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who was fired after lashing out at her colleagues was unable to prevail on her Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim (Trahan v. Wayfair Maine, LLC, No. 19-1961 (1st Cir. April 21, 2020)).
- Kirstie Trahan had trouble adjusting to the close quarters at her call-center job and experienced PTSD flashbacks after confrontations with her co-workers. She told managers she was sick of the "clique" and referred to her co-workers with an obscenity. An HR manager later investigated and determined that Trahan, by her own description of events, had violated Wayfair's conduct rules requiring that everyone be treated "in a professional manner." Trahan disclosed her disability but Wayfair fired her and she sued. A federal district court granted summary judgment to the employer.
- On appeal, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that Trahan's comments and other behaviors — including rolling her eyes, throwing her headset and slamming down her phone — "were undisputed and plainly warranted Wayfair's determination that Trahan had acted unprofessionally." This was "fireable misconduct" and Trahan was unable to show that it was pretext for discrimination, the 1st Circuit said, affirming the lower court's ruling. Additionally, Trahan "made ... proposals that she seeks to classify as accommodation requests after committing the fireable misconduct that prompted her discharge," the court said; "Where, as here, an accommodation request follows fireable misconduct, it ordinarily should not be viewed as an accommodation proposal at all."
The ADA generally does not require employers to overlook clear instances of misconduct or performance problems, even if these issues are caused by, or related to, a condition that is protected by the ADA. Still, accommodations may be necessary.
In one recent case, a district court upheld the termination of an employee who proclaimed that he hated "working with women." The employee was a veteran who had received treatment for depression, anxiety, intermittent explosive disorder, bipolar disorder, alcohol addiction, paranoid personality disorder and impulse control disorder. The district court cited the reasoning of the 11th Circuit, which "has suggested in unpublished opinions that misconduct related to a disability is not itself a disability." Later, however, an appeals court revived the case, directing the lower court to revisit the plaintiff's claim that he had requested a reasonable accommodation before the outburst.
The 5th Circuit recently held that an employee with PTSD was unqualified for his job as a cable splicer following multiple workplace safety incidents. In another case, the 5th Circuit determined that a police officer with PTSD failed to meet the essential attendance requirements of his job.
Importantly, however, employers must avoid assumptions about what an employee with a disability may or may not be able to do, and to work with employees to find suitable accommodations whenever possible, experts say. And because the ADA doesn't require any magic words for accommodation requests, HR can train managers to identify such requests and escalate them as necessary.