United States: Workplace Violence – Putting Employers On The Horns Of A Dilemma

Employers today can find themselves in a seemingly untenable dilemma when they have violence threaten to invade their workplaces. Two recent cases illustrate the competing liabilities that employers face in their decision-making as to how to respond to workplace violence.

In one case, decided by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the employer, a superalloys casting company, chose to fire an openly hostile employee making death threats to avoid potential injury to its employees, and face the prospect of costly litigation including an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit.

In the other case, decided by an Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) Administrative Law Judge, a healthcare company did not perceive or protect a social service coordinator, who was tragically fatally stabbed outside the client's home, from the hazard of workplace violence.

Employer Response to Violence Upheld

In the first case the plaintiff appealed from the Federal District Court's grant of summary judgment in favor of his former employer on his claim of discrimination in violation of Oregon disability law. Mayo v, PCC Structurals, Inc., No. 13-35643 (9th Cir. July 28, 2015) (Mayo).

The District Court concluded that because the plaintiff, Timothy Mayo, had threatened to kill his co-workers, including his supervisor, he was not a "qualified individual" under section 659A.112 of the Oregon Revised Statutes, which is Oregon's counterpart to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The District Court indicated that in following the decisions of numerous other Circuit Courts, Mayo was no longer a "qualified individual" once he made his "violent threats." Because Mayo was not a qualified individual in the eyes of the court, he was not "entitled to protection under the ADA and Oregon's disability discrimination statute."

In its discussion affirming the lower court decision, the Circuit Court of Appeals found that even if the plaintiff were disabled (which it assumed was true for the appeal), "he cannot show that he was qualified at the time of his discharge. An essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others." For instance, in a frightening recitation of the court record, the plaintiff told a co-worker that he "'fe[lt] like coming down [to work] with a shotgun an[d] blowing off' the heads of the supervisor and another manager. The co-worker need not worry, Mayo explained, because she would not be working the shift when the killing would occur."

After these statements were reported to company management a timely investigation was conducted. Written statements were obtained from co-employees regarding the threats. When the plaintiff was asked by management if he planned to carry out these threats, the plaintiff responded that "he couldn't guarantee he wouldn't do that." The company management immediately suspended the plaintiff's employment, barred him from company property, and notified the police.

After the plaintiff's suspension and being interviewed by the police, he was voluntarily admitted to the hospital because he was deemed to pose a danger to himself and to others. He remained in custody for six days, and then took a leave under the Oregon Family Leave Act (OFLA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for two months. Near the end of his leave period, a treating psychologist cleared him to return to work, writing that he was not a "violent person," but recommended a new supervisor assignment. While the parties dispute the timing, the employer decided to terminate the plaintiff during his medical leave. The company determined that his threats were of such severity that he was unqualified to work with any supervisors or co-employees and that it could not expose its employees to potential workplace injury.

In response the plaintiff brought this case, seeking damages. The District Court granted the employer's motion for summary judgment, and the Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

Employer Response to Threatening Conduct Found Inadequate

In the second case, an Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) Administrative Law Judge, Dennis L. Phillips, issued an opinion that a healthcare company did not protect a social service coordinator, who was fatally stabbed outside her client's home in December 2012. Secretary of Labor v. Integra Health Management, Inc., OSHRC No. 13-1124 (June 22, 2015) (Integra).

The employer in this case, Integra Health Management, Inc. (Integra), provided mental and physical health assessments and coordinated healthcare/case management services for insureds of insurance companies. One of its employees was a 25 year old newly- hired Service Coordinator (SC) with about three months on the job. The employee had no prior experience in the community health or social worker industries. The employee did not have an office at the company but instead worked out of her home. She also used her computer, a phone, and car to travel to client's homes.

In October 2012, the employee planned to drive out into the field to a client's apartment, to make an unscheduled visit. The client was a diagnosed schizophrenic, who was on the employee's list of clients, known as "members," for which she was responsible. The client had a history of violent behavior, and had been convicted of violent crimes and incarcerated for many years. The employee was not advised about the client's history of mental illness or violent behavior when he was assigned to her. The employee had made several attempts to contact the client by telephone, which were unsuccessful.

As planned, the employee visited the client in October 2012 by going to his house unannounced. She introduced herself and the company and arranged a return visit to conduct an initial assessment. The employee reported in her progress note report for that day that during their conversation, the client "said a few things that made [her] uncomfortable, [she] asked [the client] to be respectful or she would not be able to work with him." She also documented in her progress note report that "[b]ecause of this situation, [she] is not comfortable being inside alone with [the client] and will either sit outside to complete assessment or ask another SC to accompany her."

A number of subsequent meetings and conversations occurred between the employee and the client including further notes in the employee's progress note report regarding her concerns. In December 2012, the employee was fatally stabbed by the client during her visit to his home.

Following the incident the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued two citations to Integra Health Management, Inc., claiming a violation of the General Duty Clause, section 5(a)(1), of the OSH Act, and a violation of OSHA's injury reporting standard. Specifically, the General Duty Clause citation alleged that the employer did not furnish employment and a place of employment which were free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees, in that employees were exposed to the hazard of being physically assaulted by clients with a history of violent behavior.

The Judge determined that the employer's workplace violence policy was inadequate, that the employee training was insufficient, that the employer failed to provide the employee with information about the medical background of the client, as well as the criminal history. More importantly, the Judge determined that the employer did not monitor the employee's progress notes which identified her concerns about the client and did not take affirmative action to assist her when she indicated her continuing anxiety about their interactions.

What are the Legal Ramifications that Employers Should Consider?

In Mayo the employer took steps to protect its employees from threatened harm by conducting a timely investigation, suspending and eventually terminating the aggressive and threatening employee. The company's actions forced it to respond to discrimination claims under the ADA that initially were filed in state court, and removed to federal court. While the employer prevailed in the District Court and Circuit Court, the company undoubtedly spent considerable sums defending the suits. While this litigation was very time consuming and expensive, the employer avoided a tragic outcome.

Unfortunately in Integra the employer did not respond to or take any actions to address any sense of fear or anxiety mentioned in the employee's client visit notes. A serious OSHA violation occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known. The Judge found that the healthcare company's approach to safety was inadequate, and that the company should have taken precautions to prevent injury by developing a meaningful written policy, hiring and training its employees appropriately and responding to complaints in a timely manner. While the company only faced an OSHA fine of $7,000 in proposed penalties for the General Duty Clause violation, it sustained the tragic loss of an employee, as well as a worker's compensation death suit.

Recent OSHA Guidance

The Mayo decision may give some sense of security to those employers that make hard choices for what it believes are the right reasons, that is, for employee safety. But choices are not always easy, and the resulting actions can be costly.

The Integra decision is timely in view of another recent OSHA action relating to the healthcare industry. Recently OSHA released an " Inspection Guidance for Inpatient Healthcare Settings," that will focus its inspectors attention to workplace violence, musculoskeletal disorders, bloodborne pathogens, tuberculosis, and slips, trips, and falls. The Guidance focuses on hazards that were included in OSHA's recently-concluded National Emphasis Program on Nursing and Residential Care Facilities, CPL 03-00-016.

Particularly, the Guidance indicates that workplace violence is defined as violent acts (including physical assaults and threats of assaults) directed toward persons at work or on duty. OSHA notes that workplace violence is a recognized hazard in hospitals, and in nursing and residential care facilities. According to OSHA, in the healthcare and social assistance sector, 13 percent of the injuries and illnesses were the result of violence. "Fifteen percent of the days-away-from-work cases for nursing assistants were the result of violence." Accordingly, workplace violence will be evaluated in every inpatient healthcare OSHA inspection.

While the inspection Guidance is for "inpatient" healthcare settings, employers in other industries can be certain that they will also be inspected by the same OSHA inspectors as healthcare workplace violence incidents occur, regardless of the setting, including non-healthcare workplaces as well. The Guidance was effective immediately. The Guidance noted that "because these hazards are nationwide, State Plans are expected to follow the guidance."

Healthcare employers should take heed of this healthcare industry OSHA decision and the related Guidance. Special attention should be taken to update your policies, procedures, and training systems to include these topics in order to be inspection ready.

Recommendations

Against this potential liability scenario, an employer must develop an effective written workplace violence policy which must be communicated to all employees if it hopes to have any defense against these potential claims and to prevent a tragic incident. At a minimum, the written workplace violence prevention policy should include the following elements:

  • Stated management commitment to protecting employees against the hazards of workplace violence, including both physical acts and verbal threats;
  • Statement that the employer has a "zero tolerance" policy toward threats or acts of violence and will take appropriate disciplinary action against employees who engage in such conduct;
  • Identify means and methods for employees to notify the employer of perceived threats of violent acts in a confidential manner;
  • Establish a means to promptly investigate all such threats or violent acts;
  • Develop consistent, firm discipline for violations of the policy;
  • Provide training for managers and employees to identify signs and symptoms of employee behavior which may predict potential violence (erratic behavior; employee comments regarding homicide or suicide; provocative communications; disobedience of policies and procedures; presence of alcohol, drugs or weapons on the worksite; physical evidence of employee abuse of alcohol or drug use) which should be reported immediately to the employer;
  • Establish a team of qualified individuals (e.g., human resources; risk managers; legal; medical; security) either within the company or readily available third parties, to respond to a potential or actual incident; and
  • Consider establishing an Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) to provide assistance to employees who may be experiencing mental or emotional stress before an act of violence occurs.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Authors
Craig B. Simonsen
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