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Can you fire an employee for threatening suicide?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Firing,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

by Mindy Chapman, Esq.

Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States and it peaks around this time of year. What should you do if you learn one of your employees brandished a gun and threatened suicide, but a doctor released him back to work? Shouldn’t you be concerned about safety?

One court warned, “a doctor’s note … is a doctor’s note” and terminating the worker could spark an ADA claim.

Case in Point: One day after work, an executive at a North Dakota bank had 10 to 12 drinks and then drove to a cemetery. He pulled out a gun to kill himself. His sister arrived. He threatened to kill her if she didn’t leave. Eventually, the police came and took him to a hospital where he was admitted for four days of psychiatric care.

Immediately after the employee was discharged from the hospital, his doctor signed certification saying the man could resume all of his work duties in a week. Bank officials weren’t so sure.

The bank’s director of HR told the employee that because of “the impact of your action in the community and on the ability to perform your job,” the bank was placing him on a leave of absence while it reviewed his employment. Shortly after, the bank fired him.

The employee filed an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit. He argued that his doctor certified that he was able to work and yet the bank “perceived him as disabled,” which would require the bank to try to accommodate his alleged mental illness. The bank argued that the employee was a safety threat and his actions harmed the bank’s reputation. (Lizotte v. Dacotah Bank, D.N.D)

The judge gave the employee a green light to have his case heard by a jury, saying, “If an individual can show that an adverse employment decision was made by the employer because of a perception of a mental impairmen—whether based on myth, fear or stereotype—the ‘regarded as’ prong of being defined as disabled under the ADA is generally satisfied.”

3 lessons learned … without going to court  

1. Shut up. Refrain from sharing your opinions about an employee’s medical history or condition. Keep your mouth shut or your wallet will be forced open.

2. Give up. Physicians are trained medical experts and you must respect their certifications. Don’t play doctor.

3. Escalate up. Always seek legal advice before firing an employee who is returning from a hospitalization.


Author: 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

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