Beware discipline if outburst reveals disability

Some disabilities cause behavioral problems at work. A corollary is that some employees may try to excuse rule-breaking as a side effect of their medical conditions. Even if you suspect that’s what is going on, proceed with extreme care.

Example: Firing a worker for an angry outburst when it may be related to a disability almost guarantees a lawsuit and a possible jury trial.

Recent case: Bryn, a librarian in Pennsylvania, has suffered from a variety of mental illnesses for decades. She didn’t disclose her condition until she fired off an angry email to her supervisor, complaining about how the boss did her job. In the email, she mentioned that she is “too sensitive because I have suffered deep depression since I was 12 ….”

The next morning, she was called into a meeting, where she received a written warning. She yelled during the meeting, reiterating that she had depression. Then she stormed out.

Bryn then went out on FMLA leave. A few weeks before her return, she was told someone else was filling her job, but that she would be welcome to apply for other openings.

She never returned, instead filing a lawsuit that alleged she had been fired because she has a disability.

Bryn’s employer argued it had suspended and ultimately fired her because of her disruptive outbursts, not because she has a disability.

The court said a jury should decide which side to believe and ordered a trial. (Keytanjian v. Chester, ED PA, 2018)

Final note: Patience may be a better approach to an employee’s angry outburst made in the course of disclosing a disability. Terminating someone right after they disclose a disability almost guarantees a lawsuit.