Ability to Handle Stress is Essential Function of Almost Every Job
An employer may only require a fitness for duty evaluation if is job related and consistent with business necessity.
Business necessity may be shown by demonstrating that either:
(1) the employee poses a direct threat to himself or others, or
(2) the employee has a medical condition that affects his ability to perform the essential job functions of his position. (Business necessity may not be shown where the employee’s medical condition only affects non-essential or ancillary job functions).
It is well-established that an essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle normal stress and interact with others.
Accordingly, an employee’s inability to appropriately handle work stress or interact with co-workers may substantiate the business necessity requirement for a fitness for duty evaluation.
Ability to Handle Stress is Essential Function
In the following cases, the courts determined that the ability to handle stress is an essential job function in the context of assessing whether an employee was qualified under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). (An employee who can’t perform the essential job functions of his/her job, even with a reasonable accommodation, is not protected from discrimination under the ADA). The analysis would be the same in determining what constitutes an essential job function for the purposes of establishing business necessity.
In Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc., 795 F.3d 941 (9th Cir. 2015), the Ninth Circuit held that an employee who threatened to kill fellow employees was not qualified to perform his job, regardless of whether the threats stemmed from his psychological disorder, and explained:
“An essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others. And while an employee can be qualified despite adverse reactions to stress, he is not qualified when that stress leads him to threaten to kill his co-workers in chilling detail and on multiple occasions (here, at least five times). This vastly disproportionate reaction demonstrated that [the employee] could not perform an ‘essential function of his job, and was not a “qualified individual.’ This is true regardless of whether [the employee]’s threats stemmed from his major depressive disorder . . .
An employee whose stress leads to serious and credible threats to kill his co-workers is not qualified to work for the employer, regardless of why he makes those threats. We have not located any cases, regulations, or guidance that disagree with this common sense principle.”
As the court in Mayo recognized, other courts have also held that employees who show disproportionately adverse reactions to stress, including exhibiting aggressive behavior, threatening co-workers or otherwise posing a potential threat of violence to their workplace, are not qualified to perform the essential functions of their jobs.
In Grear v. Miller & Newberg, Inc., Case No. 15-7458-JAR (D. Kansas Aug. 2, 2016), the Court granted the employer’s summary judgment motion on both of the plaintiff’s claims – ADA retaliation and discrimination. In relevant part, the court found that the plaintiff’s communication of violent thoughts to other employees threatened the safety of the workplace and exhibited her inability to appropriately handle the normal stress of work – a function which was essential to her job. Because the plaintiff was not qualified to perform her essential job functions, she was no protected under the ADA.
In Peeler v. The Boeing Company, Case no. C14-0552RSL (W.D. Washington Feb. 29, 2016), the plaintiff, an aviation maintenance tech, brought a lawsuit against her former employer alleging a hostile working environment, failure to accommodate and discrimination. The plaintiff suffered from PTSD which was triggered by, among other things, confrontation and stress. Not all of her triggers could be known or anticipated. After being hospitalized and on medical leave (during which she had suicidal and homicidal ideations), Boeing was concerned about the plaintiff’s ability to return to work and required that she undergo a psychological fitness for duty evaluation. The plaintiff was recommended a course of treatment by the evaluator, which she refused and filed the lawsuit soon after. Entering summary judgment in favor of Boeing on all claims, the Court concluded that Boeing rightly concluded that the plaintiff did not have the coping skills to return to work. Their initial concerns regarding the plaintiff’s ability to manage the normal stress of the workplace, “interact appropriately with others and deal with ambiguous, intense or emotionally-charged circumstances,” were confirmed by an independent fitness for duty examination and the ability to handle stress and interact with others is an essential function of almost every job.
In Walz v. Ameriprise Financial, Inc., 779 F.3d 842 (8th Cir. 2015), the “ability to work well with others” was an essential function of a financial analyst’s job, where the job required working as part of a team. In this case, the employee’s bipolar affective disorder caused her “to interrupt meetings, disturb her coworkers, disrespect her supervisor” and act erratically, aggressively, and rudely, she was not qualified for her job.
In Sapp v. Donohoe, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 18845 (5th Cir. 2013)(unpublished), the court held that the plaintiff, a supervisor, was not qualified for her job where her return-to-work note indicated that she could not have contact with any of her former subordinates, and have little contact with any other co-workers or the public. The court relied on the fact that supervisors in this workplace “are required as a part of their job to have extensive contact with their subordinates.”
In Hill v. Walker, 737 F.3d 1209 (8th Cir. 2013), the court held that working on stressful cases was essential for a State Family Services Worker. Where she was unable to handle stress from a particular case, she was not qualified for that job.
Finally, in Owusu-Ansha v. Coca Cola Company, 715 F. 3d 1306 (11th Cir. 2013), Coca-Cola placed one of its employees on paid leave and required him to undergo a psychological evaluation after he had exhibited repeated agitated and angry behavior in response to stressful work situations. In one instance, he made threats to a supervisor. The court found that the required fitness for duty evaluation was “job-related” because an “employee’s ability to handle reasonably necessary stress and work reasonably well with others are essential functions of any position.” (citing Williams v. Motorola, Inc., 303 F.3d 1284, at 1290 (11th Cir. 2002).
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