7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment in Disability Discrimination Lawsuit

discharge for unacceptable workplace behavior caused by disability not an ada violation

On July 6, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment entered in favor of the defendant in a disability discrimination lawsuit in which an employee sued her former employer under the Rehabilitation Act, contending that she was discharged on account of an anxiety disorder and related disabilities. Felix v. Wisconsin Department of Transportation, No. 15-2047 (7th Cir. 7/6/2016). The district court entered summary judgment against the plaintiff on the ground that the undisputed facts demonstrated that she was discharged not solely because of her disabilities, but instead based on workplace behavior that indicated to the employer that she posed a safety risk to herself and others.

The Rehabilitation Act protects a qualified individual with a disability from discrimination solely by reason of her disability in any program receiving federal funding. To prevail on a claim of employment discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act, a plaintiff must prove that: (1) she is disabled within the meaning of the statute; (2) she was otherwise qualified for the job in question; (3) she was discharged or subject to other adverse employment action solely because of her disability; and (4) the employment program of which her job was a part received federal financial assistance. The Rehabilitation Act incorporates the standards applicable to the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") concerning employment discrimination. When an employee engages in unacceptable workplace behavior, the fact that the behavior was caused by a mental illness does not present an issue under the ADA. The behavior itself disqualifies the employee from continued employment and justifies the discharge. There is also a so-called "direct-threat defense" under the ADA that justifies denial of employment to a disabled individual because the individual poses a significant risk of harm to himself or others in the workplace that cannot be eliminated with reasonable accommodation. This case was not decided under the direct threat defense. It was decided on the legal principle that an employer may terminate an employee for inappropriate behavior even when the behavior is precipitated by the employee's disability.