Human Resources News & Insights

Tread carefully when considering termination of employee with emotional issues

Reminder to managers: Unless you’re a certified professional, don’t act as an employee’s psychiatrist — even if you’re worried the employee’s actions could put her co-workers in jeopardy.

That’s the message in a recent case out of Erie, PA, where a city firefighter alleged she’d been fired in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The woman, Mary Wolski, worked as a firefighter for several years, eventually becoming a fire truck driver. She apparently performed her duties satisfactorily.

But then her mother fell ill, and died within a year. The death of her mother caused Wolski significant grief and resulted in her taking extended leave for depression and anxiety issues.

During the period she was out of work, her supervisors kept in touch, even visiting her at home to discuss her possible return date.

After one such visit, Wolski attempted suicide — she disconnected smoke alarms and tried to use the house’s furnace flue to fill the structure with carbon monoxide, took an overdose of pills and cut herself.

When none of those efforts proved effective, she started some clothes on fire in a bathtub — again, to produce a lethal level of carbon monoxide.

Police suggested that she could be charged with arson. Although those charges never materialized, the department terminated her employment.

‘Could have been a danger’

Wolski subsequently sued.

Department officials stressed their efforts to get Wolski back on the job, but said that since she actually set a fire while trying to kill herself, she might be a danger to her fellow firefighters — and thus couldn’t be allowed to continue to work for the fire department.

In court, the judge cited the EEOC enforcement guide. The section:

35. Does an individual who has attempted suicide pose a direct threat when s/he seeks to return to work?
No, in most circumstances. As with other questions of direct threat, an employer must base its determination on an individualized assessment of the person’s ability to safely perform job functions when s/he returns to work.

Attempting suicide does not mean that an individual poses an imminent risk of harm to him/herself when s/he returns to work.

In analyzing direct threat (including the likelihood and imminence of any potential harm), the employer must seek reasonable medical judgments relying on the most current medical knowledge and/or the best available factual evidence concerning the employee.

The key, the court said, was that the department hadn’t gone through the “individualized assessment” process before it terminated Wolski — it simply went by her behaviors, which could have been sparked by her disability.

The judge denied the City’s motion to dismiss the case, and a jury found that  Wolski had indeed been discriminated against because of her disability.

Case cite: Wolski v. City of Erie.

 

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