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Past threats support adverse employment action even without evidence of future dangerousness

When employers learn of threatening conduct by employees they often schedule a fitness for duty exam to determine if that employee presents an ongoing threat. May an employer still discipline for that past threatening conduct if the examiner concludes the employee is not a threat? The Ninth Circuit answered that question yes in yesterday’s opinion in Curley V. City of North Las Vegas.

In December 2008, Curley filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, alleging that the City had failed to accommodate his hearing impairment and that it was retaliating against him for having filed a prior charge of retaliation and race and age discrimination. The next month he requested a new accommodation for his hearing loss, which the City also rejected. Instead the City recommended that he use dual hearing protection. Shortly after this Curley responded inappropriately to a coworker’s request that Curly remove his hearing protection so they could talk about a work related task. The City placed Curly on leave and started an investigation into his behavior, which included a fitness for duty exam. While the examiner concluded that Curly was fit for duty and not a danger, the investigation found that Curley had repeatedly threatened coworkers, supervisors, and their families. This included threats of violence.

After a hearing, the City discharged Curley for his past threatening behavior as well as other workplace misconduct uncovered in the investigation. His subsequent claim for ADA discrimination and retaliation was dismissed by the District Court on summary judgment. In upholding the District Court, the Ninth Circuit only addressed the employer’s nondiscriminatory reasons for termination, assuming for that purpose that Curley could establish a prima facie case of retaliation and discrimination. To support its termination decision, the City cited Curley’s past threatening behavior as well as the other misconduct uncovered by the investigation. Curley argued that the  fitness for duty findings sufficiently contradicted  the stated reasons for his termination that a jury trial was required to determine the true motivation for the employers action. The court rejected that argument. According to the court:

“The City’s notice of termination specifically relied on Curley’s history of intimidating coworkers. Nothing in the fit-for-duty evaluation addressed that history. Thus, even if the City had Curley evaluated to determine whether he posed a danger to other employees, the City represented that it fired him for past threats, not for the potential of future violence. Curley presented no evidence that the City’s reliance on past threats was actually pretext for discrimination.”

Employment litigators are advised to read footnote 3 to the opinion. In it Judge Friedland details when a plaintiff’s successful attack on one of an employers proffered nondiscriminatory reasons for an adverse employment action is sufficient to undermine all the employers reasons. In this case the court concluded that even if plaintiff’s attack on the past threat reason were successful, that argument did not undermine the remaining reasons offered by the employer, providing a second reason to affirm the District Courts ruling.