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Employee Who Could Not Get Along With Co-Workers Was Not Protected By Federal Disabilities Law

On Behalf of | Jul 22, 2015 | Business Litigation, Employment & Labor Law

Marissa Walz was a long-time employee of financial planning giant Ameriprise, and for most of her time there she received positive reviews.  But more recently, Walz began to engage in erratic and disruptive behavior due to a bipolar condition, which she did not disclose to Ameriprise.  She interrupted meetings, disturbed her co-workers, and disrespected her supervisor.  During one company meeting, Walz told a co-worker to “stop interrupting me, you don’t know what you are talking about.”  When the supervisor confronted her about her inappropriate conduct, Walz rudely responded that “no one thinks your position is necessary” and “there is no sense of direction since you came on board.”After further complaints, Walz was issued a formal behavioral warning.  In response, Walz applied for and was granted a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  Because Ameriprise’s FMLA policy was administered by a third party vendor, the company never learned the mental health basis for why Walz went out on leave.  When Walz returned, she presented a note from her doctor simply saying that she “has been stabilizing on her medicine” and could work full-time.  But a few months after her return from FMLA leave, Walz began to engage in the same disruptive behavior as before, and Ameriprise fired her.

Watz sued Ameriprise, claiming that her firing was due to her mental disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

But a federal appeals court recently ruled that because Walz could not get along with her co-workers, she could not perform an essential part of her job and therefore was not protected under the ADA.  The court rejected Walz’ argument that Ameriprise should have known about her mental disorder due to her taking FMLA leave and the note from the doctor.  The court acknowledged that Walz’ supervisor had testified in his deposition that he assumed she was being treated for her mental health, but still found that the company was not placed on notice of any limitations that Walz had in the workplace.  Interestingly, Walz argued that Ameriprise should have forced her back on FMLA leave when she began acting erratically again, but the court said there is no duty for an employer to force an employee out on leave.

Declan Leonard is a managing partner at the Washington, DC business law firm, Berenzweig Leonard, LLP. Declan can be reached at [email protected].

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