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Bipolar worker making threats: Accommodate or terminate?

by on
in Employment Law,Human Resources

by Mindy Chapman, Esq.

In the past few months, several Holly­wood celebrities—including Cath­erine Zeta-Jones and Demi Lovato—have publicly announced they suffer from bipolar disorder, a mental illness defined by high and low mood swings. Even Charlie Sheen has dubbed himself “bi-winning.”

But what if a bipolar employee ex­­hibits threatening behavior—can you discipline her, or must you accommodate the disability? Do anti-violence policies trump employee disability rights? Here’s what one court said last month …

Case in Point: Linda Wills, a court clerk in California, suffered from bi­­polar disorder, a disability affecting about 2.6% of Americans over age 18, says the National Institute of Health.

From time to time, Wills took medi­­cal leave to take care of her ­condition. She never told her super­visors about her diagnosis.

One day, Wills had to wait outside of work for several minutes, ringing the buzzer to get in. Once inside, she yelled and swore at co-workers. She told two co-workers she was adding them to her “Kill Bill” list, a reference to a movie in which a character kept a list of who she was going to kill.  

A few days later, Wills’ doctors placed her on medical leave and called the incident the beginning of a manic phase. While on leave, Wills sent threatening e-mails and ringtones to co-workers.

Her doctors eventually gave her a green light to return to work. But her employer fired her for violating the workplace violence policy. Wills sued, claiming her behavior was protected under disability laws.

Result: The court noted that while there was no uniformity of rulings, many courts consistently say an employer may “distinguish between disability-caused misconduct and the disability itself when the misconduct includes threats or violence against co-workers.” The court also noted that this is the view expressed in an EEOC enforcement guide. (Wills v. Superior Court of Orange Cnty., Cal. Ct.)

3 lessons learned … without going to court

1. Safety trumps. Employers have an obligation to keep their employees safe. Employers must also respect employees’ rights under the disability laws. That’s the tension of balancing rights. But, in the end, many of the courts are ruling safety trumps threatening misconduct even if it is due to a mental disorder.

2. Call counsel. When there’s an intersection of employees’ rights and employers’ obligations, immediately get your lawyer involved in the process. These cases are tricky.

3. Act fast. Whenever there is a pending threat in the workplace, you must act quickly to protect employees—all employees.


Mindy Chapman is an attorney and  president of Mindy Chapman & Associates LLC. She is a master trainer, keynote speaker and co-author of the ABA book, Case Dismissed! Taking Your Harassment Prevention Training to Trial. Sign up to receive her blog postings at BusinessManagementDaily.com/Mindy.

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