A recent California Appellate Court upheld an employer’s right to terminate an employee for misconduct involving violent acts or threats of violence even if caused by a disability under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). In Wills v. Superior Court., No. G043054 (4th Appellate District April 13, 2011), the Court dismissed the employee’s disability discrimination claim against Orange County Superior Court (“OC”). Linda Wills (“Wills”), the employee, suffered from bipolar disorder. At one point during her employment, Wills allegedly had a severe manic episode and threatened employees that they would be on her kill list. A short time later, Wills’ was provided a leave of absence. During the leave, she allegedly sent coworkers ring tones that included threatening statements and also sent threatening emails.
The Court dismissed the cause of action for disability discrimination because OC provided a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for its actions. The Court held that an employee may be terminated for disability-caused misconduct involving threats of violence or violence against a coworker. It found that this strikes the appropriate balance between the employer’s duty not to discriminate based on disability and at the same time provide a safe working environment.
The Court distinguished the Ninth Circuit case of Gambini v. Total Renal Care, Inc. (9th Cir. 2007) 486 F. 3d 1087, where the Ninth Circuit held that conduct cause by a disability is part of the disability and cannot be a separate basis to terminate an employee. In Gambini, the plaintiff was terminated because her outbursts generally frightened coworkers. The Appellate Court distinguished Gambini case by noting that the plaintiff in that case was not terminated for making threats but for frightening coworkers. Employers should be mindful of this difference. It will be interesting to see if the California Appellate Court’s refinement of the much criticized Ninth Circuit Decision in Gambini will withstand possible appeal by the plaintiff.