A recent case out of Illinois joins a host of cases from other states holding that an employer that disciplines or terminates an employee for inappropriate conduct caused by a disability does not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Employers are given wide latitude to develop and enforce conduct rules for the workplace. Nevertheless, employers should always consult a trusted adviser, like NAE, before making any decisions because each case is different and the outcome will be dependent on the facts surrounding each particular case.

Court Says Unacceptable Behavior Not Excused by Mental Illness

Gloria Medina was an administrative assistant for the Berwyn South School District, whose duties included providing clerical support, interpreting and translating documents between English and Spanish, and maintaining an accurate record-keeping system. She took FMLA leave related to major depression and generalized anxiety disorder. While she was out on leave, the Berwyn South School District decided to combine administrative offices into one building. As a result, when Ms. Medina returned from leave, she was placed in a shared office with two other administrative assistants.

On her first day back, Ms. Medina was asked by her supervisor to translate a letter, which she stated she could not do because of the new office arrangement. She also stated she had too many other things to do. According to Ms. Medina, her supervisor told her she needed to multitask “or else.” When Ms. Medina asked “or else what?” she was told she was being insubordinate. Ms. Medina and her supervisor met a few days later to discuss the translation, specifically the errors in the translation. During that meeting, Ms. Medina was again told she was being insubordinate.

Feeling extremely anxious following the meeting, Ms. Medina called her therapist who advised her to call an ambulance. Ms. Medina called 911 three times; the first two times she hung up. She reported she was having a panic attack. As Ms. Medina was being wheeled out of the school on a gurney, she yelled at her supervisor,” You caused it. You did this to me.” This incident was witnessed by students and parents.

Ms. Medina was placed on administrative leave the following day. Ms. Medina’s doctor sent a letter to the district requesting that Ms. Medina be put on medical leave due to her mental illness. An investigation was conducted and the school district ultimately decided to terminate Ms. Medina’s employment.

Ms. Medina filed a lawsuit alleging that she had been wrongfully terminated because of her disability and that the school district had interfered with her rights under FMLA. The court, ruling against Ms. Medina, stated “when an employee engages in behavior that is unacceptable in the workplace … the fact that the behavior is precipitated by her mental illness does not present an issue under the Americans with Disabilities Act; the behavior itself disqualifies her from continued employment and justifies her discharge.” Ms. Medina’s lawsuit was dismissed.

Employees Cannot Use Alcoholism As Excuse For Misconduct

While alcoholism is a disability protected under the ADA, courts routinely hold that employees cannot use their alcoholism to excuse unacceptable behavior in the workplace. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeal has ruled in favor of employers on multiple occasions noting that even if an individual has alcoholism, the ADA “does not protect [the employee] from his own bad judgment in drinking on the job.” Martin v. Barnesville Exempted Village School District, 209 F.3d 931 (6th Cir. 2000). The 9th Circuit Court of Appeal, which covers Nevada, has come to the same conclusion in similar cases. As the 7th Circuit Court of Appeal stated in Budde v. Kane County Forest Preserve, 597 F.3d 860 (7thCir. 2010), “violation of a workplace rule, even if it is caused by a disability, is no defense to discipline up to and including termination.”

In all of these cases, the employee is being disciplined or terminated for violating a workplace rule and not their disability. Employers have a right to expect employees who suffer from alcoholism or other disabilities to meet the same standards of performance and behavior as other employees, with or without an accommodation. Having a disability, such as alcoholism or drug addiction, does not give an employee carte blanche to violate workplace rules. So long as the workplace rule is job-related and consistent with business necessity when applied to the employee whose disability caused him/her to violate the rule, there is no issue under the ADA.

Every situation is different. The outcome of the above cases are incredibly fact specific. The outcome could have been different with different facts. For that reason, it is important for employers to look at the facts of each situation before making any decision on how to proceed. Employers may also want to discuss the matter with NAE or legal counsel to ensure that they have considered all of the relevant laws that apply to the situation.