Poor Mental Health Does Not Excuse Workplace Threats, Misconduct

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In Todd v. Fayette County School District, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reminded us that an employer’s legitimate and non-discriminatory reason for taking a challenged action need not have actually happened as long as the decisionmaker believed it occurred when making the decision.

Plaintiff Jerri Todd was a teacher with a history of major depression. In 2017, Fayette County School District officials were informed that she had made a series of threats against herself, her son, and school administrators, and that she was overusing prescription medication at work. Ms. Todd requested leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), which the District granted. Meanwhile, District officials investigated the alleged threats and prescription medication overuse and eventually decided not to renew Ms. Todd’s employment contract. Ms. Todd sued, claiming that the District had discriminated and retaliated against her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and had interfered with her right to post-leave reinstatement under the FMLA.

The Eleventh Circuit upheld summary judgment in favor of the District on all three claims. Although Ms. Todd denied making any threats and misusing prescription medication, the District’s decisionmaker believed she had done both. The decisionmaker’s awareness that Ms. Todd’s mental illness caused her objectional behavior was not evidence of disability-based animus. The FMLA does not require reinstatement if reinstatement is denied for a reason unrelated to the leave, and the ADA “does not require an employer to retain an employee who it believes behaved in a threatening and dangerous way – even if the employee’s major depressive disorder is one reason, or the sole reason, that the employee engaged in that behavior.” The decisionmaker’s knowledge of and focus on the threats and prescription medication overuse prevented Ms. Todd from establishing her claims under both the ADA and the FMLA. The Eleventh Circuit’s decision is a good reminder for employers about the importance of focusing on an employee’s misbehavior rather than on an employee’s mental health.

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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