11th Circuit Finds Employee Conduct Could Lead To Termination Even The place The Conduct Is The Consequence Of Psychological Sickness – Employment and HR

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On May 27, 2021, a unanimous three-person jury from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh District in the Todd v. Fayette County confirms a school district’s decision to end a mentally ill teacher. The school district’s reasonable belief that the teacher threatened to kill herself and her son (a student at the school) and harm other school staff, and consumed excessive Xanax while at work, was a legitimate reason to quit, even though they could be mentally ill contributed to their actions.


The applicant, an art teacher, suffered suicidal thoughts after her father’s suicide and was eventually diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety. The school district was aware of the plaintiff’s mental health issues as she had confided to the headmaster, who encouraged the plaintiff to seek professional help and a formal diagnosis. In fact, the headmistress herself arranged the plaintiff’s first appointment with the specialist who ultimately diagnosed the plaintiff.

In 2017, Teacher’s depression worsened. At least two colleagues reported that the teacher threatened to kill herself and her son, and even pointed out several ways to implement her plan, including calming her son with Xanax. The teacher was also reported to have consumed Xanax excessively while working in the presence of another teacher.

As a result of these reports, the teacher was involuntarily admitted to a mental health facility and her son was temporarily cared for by her friend, a fellow teacher at the school. Although the plaintiff’s psychiatric doctor gave the teacher a work permit stating that the plaintiff was not posing a threat to himself or others, the school continued to investigate reports on the plaintiff even after the Department of Family and Children’s Services returned was her child in her care. The plaintiff filed an objection claiming that it believes it falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Two days later, the plaintiff’s human resources department announced that the school district would likely end her employment if she did not resign. The plaintiff refused to resign and also requested leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which was granted.

While the plaintiff was on leave, another employee informed the school district that the plaintiff had made further threatening statements – this time to the school management. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff’s employment contract was not renewed.

Following her termination, plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging that her termination constituted unlawful discrimination in violation of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act and prejudice to her rights under the FMLA. Plaintiff also alleged retaliation in violation of all three laws. Although the plaintiff rejected the threats the school district relied on in order to establish a legitimate business reason for its termination decision, the court of first instance ruled in favor of the school district on all counts and the plaintiff appealed.

Opinion of the court

On appeal, the Eleventh District was faced with the question of whether the school district was entitled to a summary judgment, although the plaintiff’s alleged threats against herself, her son, and others that led to her dismissal were due to her severe depressive disorder .

In concluding on the grounds of discrimination, the eleventh court assumed that the plaintiff could establish a prima facie case of discrimination (i.e. that it could produce direct evidence of discrimination or, alternatively, produce circumstantial evidence to prove that it did qualified a person with a disability who was treated less favorably because of their disability). Nonetheless, the court found that the school district was able to honor its obligation to provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating the plaintiff’s employment, and that the plaintiff was unable to demonstrate that the ground was merely a pretext for discrimination. In making this conclusion, the Eleventh Circle emphasized that:

  • While the plaintiff’s behavior was likely due to her major depressive disorder, the dismissal was motivated not by the major depressive disorder itself, but rather by the plaintiff’s behavior that the school district suspected – threats to herself and others, including her own son who was a student of the district.
  • Whatever the cause of the conduct, the school district was entitled to have the conduct removed from the school, particularly considering that the plaintiff’s work “required her to be responsible for the welfare of her students. . . [because] ADA does not require employers to accept dangerous misconduct, even if that misconduct is the result of a disability. ”
  • The veracity of colleagues’ reports of the plaintiff’s behavior and threats was irrelevant in determining whether the grounds for dismissal given by the school district were an excuse for discrimination, as the pretext investigation focused on the employer’s beliefs (as opposed to beliefs employee) and the teacher had provided no evidence that the final decision maker did not honestly believe the plaintiff made threatening statements and consumed excessive Xanax while on the job.
  • Even the medical clearance to return to work did not make the reasons given by the school district a mere pretext for discrimination, since the plaintiff was accused of additional threatening behavior after the clearance to return to work and during the FMLA.

With regard to the plaintiff’s claims for retaliation, the Eleventh Circuit found that the temporal proximity between the plaintiff’s statement that she falls under the ADA, her application for a leave of absence under the FMLA and her eventual dismissal was insufficient to refute a summary judgment, in the absence of evidence that the school district’s reason for dismissal – the plaintiff’s threats and wrongdoing – provided an excuse for retaliation. This was particularly true when one considers that the school district was already considering terminating the plaintiff’s employment relationship when asserting its ADA and FMLA rights, since the plaintiff’s school had not allowed the plaintiff to return to work until the investigation was complete.

Finally, with regard to the plaintiff’s FMLA disruption suit, the Eleventh Circuit found that the claim had failed because plaintiff had to prove that it had been denied a right to which it was entitled, in this case the right to reinstatement. However, the right to be reinstated is not unconditional, and if an employer can demonstrate legitimate reasons for terminating the employment relationship, there is no obligation to reinstate an employee who could otherwise be terminated. Here, the decision maker’s reasonable assumption that the plaintiff had threatened the school and consumed excess Xanax made a dismissal reasonable.

Notably, the Eleventh Circle made it clear in their parting words that the fact that she was a teacher may have played a role in his decision. The Eleventh Circle emphasized that the school districts are obliged to protect students and employees from violence, even if the behavior of the employees can be traced back to mental illness.

The Impact of the Todd Decision on Employers

Todd affirms the principle that employee misconduct can lead to termination, even if the misconduct can be caused by an impairment that constitutes a disability within the meaning of the ADA. The ADA and Rehabilitation Act puts qualified people with disabilities on an equal footing with all other employees of equal status. While disabled workers should not be treated worse than non-disabled workers because of their disabilities, the employer has the right to remove an employee who shows misconduct from the workplace, as would be the case if the worker were not disabled.

Todd also points out that the mere temporal proximity between an employee making a legal claim and a negative hiring decision is insufficient to warrant retaliation. Applicants are required to provide some evidence of discriminatory animus, and without such an animus, dismissal after a protected activity is not contestable.

While Todd’s opinion is favorable to employers, employers must keep in mind that each case relates to its specific facts. In order to minimize risks, employers should therefore consult their employment advisor on the risks associated with adverse employment measures in relation to an employee who belongs to a protected category or has carried out a protected job.

The content of this article is intended to provide general guidance on the subject. Expert advice should be sought regarding your specific circumstances.

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