11th Circuit Finds Employee Conduct May Lead to Termination Even Where the Conduct is the Result of Mental Illness

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On May 27, 2021, in Todd v. Fayette County School District, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the propriety of a school district’s decision to end a mentally ill teacher’s employment.  The school district’s reasonable belief that the teacher had threatened to kill herself and her son (a student at the school) and harm other school personnel, and had consumed an excessive amount of Xanax while at work, constituted legitimate grounds for termination, even though her mental illness may have contributed to her actions. 

Background

The plaintiff, an art teacher, suffered from suicidal thoughts after her father committed suicide, and was eventually diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety.  The school district was aware of the plaintiff’s mental health struggles, as she had confided in the school principal, who had encouraged the plaintiff to seek professional assistance and a formal diagnosis.  In fact, the principal herself made the plaintiff’s first appointment with the professional who eventually diagnosed the plaintiff. 

In 2017, the teacher’s depression took a turn for the worse.  At least two co-workers reported that the teacher had threatened to kill herself and her son, going as far as detailing multiple ways to carry out her plan, including sedating her son with Xanax.  It was also reported that the teacher had consumed an excessive amount of Xanax while at work in the presence of another teacher.   

As a result of these reports, the teacher was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility and her son was placed under temporary care of her friend, a fellow teacher at the school.  Although the plaintiff’s mental health doctor gave the teacher a work release stating that the plaintiff did not pose a threat to herself or to others, the school continued its own investigation into the reports concerning the plaintiff, even after the Department of Family and Child Services returned her child to her custody. The plaintiff objected, asserting that she believed she was covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Two days later, Human Resources informed the plaintiff that if she did not resign, the school district would likely end her employment. The plaintiff refused to resign and also requested leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which request was granted.

While the plaintiff was on leave, another employee informed the school district that the plaintiff had made additional threatening remarks—this time toward school administrators. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff’s employment contract was not renewed. 

Following her termination, the plaintiff filed suit alleging her termination constituted unlawful discrimination in violation of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act, and interference with her rights under the FMLA. The plaintiff also alleged retaliation in violation of all three statutes.  Although the plaintiff denied the accounts of threats upon which the school district relied to assert the legitimate business reason for its termination decision, the trial court granted summary judgment in the school district’s favor as to all counts, and the plaintiff appealed. 

Opinion of the Court

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit faced the issue of whether the school district was entitled to summary judgment even though the plaintiff’s alleged threats toward herself, her son, and others, which resulted in her termination, were the result of her major depressive disorder. 

In reaching a conclusion on the discrimination counts, the Eleventh Circuit assumed that the plaintiff could establish a prima facie case of discrimination (i.e., that she could bring forth direct evidence of discrimination or, alternatively, proffer circumstantial evidence to establish that she was a qualified individual with a disability who was treated less favorably because of her disability).  Nonetheless, the court found the school district could meet its burden of articulating a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for ending the plaintiff’s employment, and that the plaintiff could not establish that such reason was mere pretext for discrimination.  In reaching this conclusion, the Eleventh Circuit emphasized that: 

  • While the plaintiff’s behavior likely stemmed from her major depressive disorder, the termination was not motivated by the major depressive disorder itself but rather because of the conduct the school district believed the plaintiff had engaged in—threats to herself and to others, including her own son, who was a student of the district. 
  • Whatever the cause of the behavior, the school district was entitled to eliminate the behavior from the school, especially considering the plaintiff’s job “required that she be responsible for the welfare of her students. . . [because] the ADA does not require that employers countenance dangerous misconduct, even if that misconduct is the result of a disability.” 
  • The veracity of co-workers’ reports concerning the plaintiff’s behavior and threats was of no consequence to a determination of whether the school district’s proffered reasons for termination were pretext for discrimination because the pretext inquiry focuses on the employer’s beliefs (as opposed to the employee’s beliefs) and the teacher had not adduced any evidence to suggest that the final decisionmaker did not honestly believe that the plaintiff made threatening statements and consumed an excessive amount of Xanax while at work. 
  • The doctor’s clearance allowing the plaintiff to return to work also did not render the school district’s proffered reasons mere pretext for discrimination because the plaintiff was reported to have engaged in additional threatening behavior after she had been cleared to return to work and while she was on FMLA leave.   

As to the plaintiff’s claims of retaliation, the Eleventh Circuit noted that the temporal proximity between the plaintiff’s statement that she is covered by the ADA, her request for leave under the FMLA, and her eventual termination was not enough to defeat summary judgment absent evidence that the school district’ proffered reason for termination –the plaintiff’s threats and misconduct—were pretext for retaliation.  This was especially true considering that the school district was already contemplating ending the plaintiff’s employment when she asserted her ADA and FMLA rights because the school had not permitted the plaintiff to return to work until the investigation was concluded. 

Finally, as to the plaintiff’s FMLA interference claim, the Eleventh Circuit found that the claim failed because the plaintiff needed to establish that she was denied a right to which she was entitled, in this case the right to reinstatement.  However, the right to reinstatement is not absolute, and where an employer can demonstrate legitimate reasons for ending the employment relationship there is no requirement to reinstate an otherwise terminable employee.  Here, the decisionmaker’s reasonable belief that the plaintiff had made threats and consumed excessive amounts of Xanax while at school rendered termination appropriate. 

Notably, in its parting remarks, the Eleventh Circuit made clear that the fact that she was a teacher may have played a role in its decision. The Eleventh Circuit emphasized that school districts have duties to keep students and staff safe from violence, including where the employee’s behavior results from mental illness.

The Todd Decision’s Impact on Employers

Todd reinforces the principle that employee misconduct may lead to termination even where the misconduct may be caused by an impairment that constitutes a disability under the ADA.  The ADA and Rehabilitation Act place qualified individuals with disabilities on equal footing with all other similarly situated employees. While disabled employees may not be treated less favorably than non-disabled employees because of their disabilities, an employer is entitled to eliminate from the workplace an employee who exhibits misconduct in the same manner it would if the employee were not disabled. 

Todd also serves as a reminder that mere temporal proximity between an employee’s assertion of a statutory right and an adverse employment decision does not suffice to establish retaliation. Claimants must proffer some evidence of discriminatory animus and, absent such animus, termination following protected activity is not actionable. 

Although the Todd opinion is favorable to employers, employers must be mindful that each case turns on its specific facts.  As a result, in order to help minimize risks, employers should consult with their employment counsel for guidance on the risks of taking any adverse employment action with respect to an employee who is in a protected category or has exercised protected activity. 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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