State and federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees with physical, as well as mental disabilities. In addition, employers are required to reasonably accommodate employees with known physical or mental disabilities as long as doing so does not cause undue hardship to the employer. Gambini v. Total Renal Care, Inc., a recent 9th Circuit case, addressed the standard for evaluating a claim for disability discrimination where the plaintiff claimed that she was terminated for conduct resulting from a mental disability.
In Gambini, the plaintiff was a contracts clerk for a company that provided dialysis to renal patients. Several months after she began working for the employer, she began seeking medical treatment for bipolar disorder, a mental condition. The plaintiff disclosed her treatment to her supervisors and asked for several accommodations. She also disclosed her condition and treatment to her co-workers, explaining that the disorder sometimes caused mood swings, and irritable behavior.
In April 2002, the plaintiff’s bipolar symptoms worsened and she began having difficulty performing her job duties because of these symptoms. She sought treatment from a psychiatric nurse practitioner who confirmed her diagnosis of bipolar disorder based on the plaintiff’s "’short fuse,’ high energy, and propensity to exhibit anger and irritability."
During this time, the plaintiff’s supervisors decided to issue the plaintiff a written performance improvement plan due to her perceived poor job performance. The first sentence of the performance plan stated that the plaintiff’s "attitude and general disposition were no longer acceptable…" During the meeting during which her supervisors discussed this improvement plan with her, the plaintiff became very upset and began to hurl obscenities at her supervisors. She exited the meeting dramatically, slamming the door behind her. She was later seen at her cubicle kicking and throwing things. Over the next few days, several employees sent emails to human resources expressing concerns about the plaintiff’s behavior, including one employee who asked that the plaintiff not be permitted to return to work.
Five days after the plaintiff’s meeting with her supervisors, the plaintiff was fired. One of the reasons given for her termination was that she had "frightened her co-workers with her violent outbursts." Three days after that, the plaintiff sent a letter to her employer asking her employer to reconsider her termination and explaining that her conduct had been caused by her bipolar disorder. Her employer refused to reconsider the termination, and she instituted a lawsuit against the employer claiming disability discrimination under Washington law and the ADA, as well as under the FMLA. The jury entered a verdict in favor of the defendant employer. However, the Ninth Circuit reversed as to the disability discrimination claim, and remanded the action for a new trial.
The Ninth Circuit held that the lower court had erred in failing to instruct the jury that "Conduct resulting from the disability… is part of the disability and not a separate basis for termination." The court reasoned that the jury could have inferred from the evidence that the "violent outburst" which had been cited as one reason for her termination, was a consequence of the plaintiff’s bipolar disorder. Thus, because the conduct that had led to her termination was part and parcel to the plaintiff’s mental disability, the jury could have concluded that the plaintiff was terminated because of her mental disability, and a new trial was necessary.
In making this decision, the Court was careful to note that requiring that the instruction — "Conduct resulting from the disability… is part of the disability and not a separate basis for termination" – be given does not provide employees claiming a mental disability with absolute protection from employment actions based on disability-related conduct. An employee claiming disability discrimination must still establish that he or she is a disabled individual who can perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation, and defendants may still raise defenses of "business necessity" or "direct threat" to any discrimination claim under the ADA.
The Gambini decision was decided under Washington law; however, in making this decision, the Ninth Circuit specifically noted that a similar standard applies under the ADA. Thus, this decision reinforces the importance of training supervisors and other employees who make decisions regarding disabled workers to avoid actions being taken against employees for conduct or behavior stemming from the disability itself. Employers are further advised to seek legal counsel before taking any adverse employment action against an employee who claims a mental disability where the reason for the termination may appear to stem from the disability itself.