By: Jessica Jackler
In Kurtzhals v. County of Dunn, No. 19-3111 (7th Cir. 2020), the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of the employer in a disability discrimination claim by an employee who was put on temporary paid leave and ordered to undergo a fitness-for-duty test after he threatened physical violence against a coworker. The employee claimed that the employer violated the ADA because it knew that he had a history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his military service, not because his conduct violated the employer’s workplace violence policy and implicated public safety.
The court concluded that no reasonable jury could find that the employee’s PTSD was the “but for” cause of the employer’s action or that it was plainly unreasonable for the employee’s superiors to believe that a fitness-for-duty examination was warranted.
The court agreed with the employer’s explanation that the temporary leave placement was due to the employee uttering a threat of physical violence during a verbal dispute with a co-worker, and that said threat violated the defendant’s workplace anti-violence policy. Moreover, the employee failed to present evidence to support his claim of pretext, where there was no evidence establishing that the decision-maker was aware of his history of PTSD. Further, and contrary to the employee’s argument that he and the coworker he threatened acted in a comparable fashion and should have been treated similarly, the record reflected that only the plaintiff employee explicitly threatened physical violence. The coworker may have behaved in an intimidating fashion, but their behavior was not identical.
The court also explained that the employer did not violate the ADA by requiring the employee to undergo a fitness for duty examination since it had a particularly compelling interest in assuring that the employee, a police officer, was mentally and physically able to perform his duties, especially where his conduct violated the employer’s anti-violence policy.
Practice Tip: Employers must base all employment actions on legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons to avoid claims of discriminatory treatment. Additionally, employers should treat all similarly-situated employees equally to avoid inferences of preferential treatment.