Monday, January 10, 2011

Unstable employees, direct threats, and the ADA

I opened my email this morning to find the following question from fellow blogger The Evil HR Lady:

As you probably know, I’m an avid reader, even though I’ve never lived in Ohio, although I have been to two weddings there, so that must count for something.

I've been reading about Jared Lee Loughner--the Arizona shooter and came across the e-mails written by a class member who thought Loughner was dangerous here:

My question for you, the employment lawyer, is given ADA protections, if I notice an employee becoming increasingly unstable, what can I do about it?

I’d love to read your thoughts on this.

Instead of responding directly, I thought I’d share my thoughts with everyone.

The ADA contains a specific exception for employees who pose a “direct threat.” The statute defines “direct threat” as “a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by reasonable accommodation.” The ADA’s regulations require that the determination that an individual poses a direct threat must be “based on an individualized assessment of the individual’s present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job.” Employers must base this assessment on either “a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge” or “on the best available objective evidence.” In making this determination, employers should rely on the following four factors:

  1. The duration of the risk;
  2. The nature and severity of the potential harm;
  3. The likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and
  4. The imminence of the potential harm.

Palmer v. Circuit Court of Cook County (7th Cir. 1997) succinctly explains the Hobson’s choice employers face when deciding whether to retain a potentially violent employee. Since I can’t say it any better, I’ll just quote from the opinion:

The [ADA] does not require an employer to retain a potentially violent employee. Such a requirement would place the employer on a razor’s edge—in jeopardy of violating the Act if it fired such an employee, yet in jeopardy of being deemed negligent if it retained him and he hurt someone. The Act protects only “qualified” employees, that is, employees qualified to do the job for which they were hired; and threatening other employees disqualifies one….

It is true that an employer has a statutory duty to make a “reasonable accommodation” to an employee’s disability, that is, an adjustment in working conditions to enable the employee to overcome his disability, if the employer can do this without “undue hardship.” … But we cannot believe that this duty runs in favor of employees who commit or threaten to commit violent acts…. The retention of such an employee would cause justifiable anxiety to coworkers and supervisors. It would be unreasonable to demand of the employer either that it force its employees to put up with this or that it station guards to prevent the mentally disturbed employee from getting out of hand.

To sum up and answer the question posed, employers faced with a legitimate and potentially dangerous employee need not wait for the powder keg to explode. Instead, employers can treat the employee as a “direct threat” and separate the individual from employment.

A few additional practical points to consider:

  1. Prior to the termination, obtain written statements from co-workers, supervisors, and managers documenting all threatening behavior.

  2. The severity of threat is proportional to the duration of the risk. In other words, the more real the risk the less amount of time you have to allow it in your workplace.

  3. Typically, I’m opposed to security escorts of terminated employees. The termination of an employee who poses a direct threat for violence is the exception.

  4. Consider carrying out the termination as late in the work day, and work week, as possible. This timing will create and artificial cooling-off period and help limit the risk that the employee returns to do harm.

  5. Put the local police department on notice. Also consider a private security detail for a period of time until you are reasonably certain the employee is not going to return to cause harm.

Finally, my thought and prayers are with everyone in Tucson as they mourn, fight for their lives, cope with what happened, and start the healing process.