In Wills v. Superior Court of Orange County, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —-, Cal.App. 4 Dist., April 13, 2011), a court of appeal considered whether an employee with a mental disability could state a claim for discrimination against her employer pursuant to the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) after her employer terminated her employment for misconduct that included threats of violence against coworkers. The court of appeal held that the employee could not state a disability claim against her employer because an “employer may reasonably distinguish between disability caused misconduct and the disability itself when the misconduct includes threats or violence against coworkers.”
Linda Wills began working for the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Orange (“OC Court”) in 1999. Wills had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1997. In July 2007, OC Court assigned Wills to help arraign criminal suspects at the Anaheim Police Department lockup facility. After Wills had to wait several minutes before being admitted to the facility, she “angrily swore and yelled at” employees of the police department and told an employee that she was adding him and another employee to her “Kill Bill” list. After Wills told the second employee to never leave her outside again, the employee asked her supervisor if she should seek a restraining order against Wills. The police department reported the incident to the OC Court and demanded that the OC Court never again assign Wills to the facility.
A few days after the incident at the Anaheim facility, Wills’ doctor placed her on medical leave to treat a manic episode. While she was on leave, Wills forwarded a cell phone ringtone to several people, including a coworker at the OC Court, that included profanity and a reference to blowing something up. The coworker reported the incident because the ringtone disturbed and frightened her. During the time she was one leave, Wills also sent e-mails to several coworkers and other persons that categorized some of the recipients as evil and stated that her family and “so-called friends will pay for what they put [her] through.” Wills also stated that God will protect her “from evil and the demons that came out in [her] family and friends.”
On the day Wills was scheduled to return to work, the OC Court placed her on administrative leave. After it completed an investigation, the OC Court decided to terminate her employment. The termination notice listed the grounds for termination as threatening a peace officer and other police department personnel with physical harm, sending coworkers threatening and inappropriate communications, misuse of court resources, and poor judgment.
Wills claimed the OC Court unlawfully discriminated against her based on her disability. The OC Court delayed her termination and investigated her harassment claim but ultimately decided to terminate Wills’ employment. Wills filed a discrimination complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”) and obtained a right-to- sue notice. Wills filed a lawsuit against the OC Court alleging six causes of action under FEHA. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of OC Court on the grounds that Wills failed to exhaust her administrative remedies and that OC Court terminated Wills for a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason.
Wills asserted the following six FEHA causes of action against the OC Court: (1) disability discrimination, (2) retaliation, (3) hostile work environment, (4) failure to prevent harassment, (5) failure to engage in the interactive process, and (6) failure to make reasonable accommodations. However, on the administrative complaint she filed with DFEH, she “marked the box for discrimination based on ‘denial of family/medical leave’ only.” In response to the complaint, the OC Court asserted Wills’ claim “lacked merit because the OC Court granted all her leave requests.” The OC Court also explained in detail its reason for terminating Wills and why the termination did not constitute disability discrimination. Wills’ judicial complaint did not allege a denial of family or medical leave, but instead alleged the six causes of action listed above.
The court declined to decide if Wills could rely on the OC Court’s response to her complaint to satisfy the administrative exhaustion requirement as to her cause of action for disability discrimination. The court assumed without deciding that Wills exhausted the requirement as to her disability discrimination claim because, as discussed below, the court found that Wills’ cause of action for disability discrimination lacks merit. The court, however, concluded that Wills failed to exhaust her administrative remedies as to her second through sixth causes of action. As to those five causes of action, even if the court were to consider the OC Court’s response to her DFEH complaint, Wills did not raise those claims during the administrative proceedings.
The court found the trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of the OC Court on Wills’ claim of disability discrimination. In order to state a cause of action for disability discrimination, Wills was required to show (1) she “suffered from a disability, or was regarded as suffering from a disability;” (2) she “could perform the essential duties of the job with or without reasonable accommodations,” and (3) she “was subjected to an adverse employment action because of the disability or perceived disability.” If Wills can meet her burden of showing these three elements, the burden then shifts to the OC Court to present evidence that it had a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Wills. The court held the OC Court met its burden of proving a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Wills.
The parties do not dispute the OC Court knew about Wills’ mental disability before it made the decision to termination her and that Wills’ bipolar disorder prompted the behavior that the OC Court cited in its termination notice. However, Wills claims “all conduct resulting from a disability is considered part of the disability, rather than a separate basis for termination.”
The court noted several federal cases have held that an employer is not required “to retain an employee who threatens or commits acts of violence against coworkers, even if the employee’s disability caused that conduct.” The court found the federal “authorities consistently hold an employer may distinguish between disability-caused misconduct and the disability itself when the misconduct includes threats or violence against coworkers.”
The court decided to adopt the federal courts’ interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and interpret “FEHA as authorizing an employer to distinguish between disability-caused misconduct and the disability itself in the narrow context of threats or violence against coworkers.” The court concluded, “If employers are not permitted to make this distinction, they are caught on the horns of a dilemma. They may not discriminate against an employee based on a disability but, at the same time, must provide all employees with a safe work environment free from threats and violence.” The court found that “misconduct involving threats or violence against coworkers is properly considered as a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating the employee.”
After the OC Court met its burden of offering a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Wills, she was required to “offer substantial evidence that [the OC Court’s] stated nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse action was untrue or pretextual, or evidence the employer acted with a discriminatory animus, or a combination of the two, such that a reasonable trier of fact could conclude the employer engaged in intentional discrimination.” The court found Wills failed to offer such evidence and affirmed the decision of the trial court granting summary judgment in favor of the OC Court.
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