Sheriff ok to fire depressed, intoxicated officer who claimed disability after shooting himself

Two police officers behind crime scene tape

A federal appeals court recently upheld the firing of a law enforcement officer who intentionally shot himself while on duty and intoxicated. The decision reinforces an employer’s right to apply performance and conduct standards to a disabled employee, even when that employee blames their performance or conduct shortcomings on their disability.

A colorful law enforcement career

Tyler Harrison, a lieutenant with the Holmes County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, suffered from stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD and alcoholism. The officer had been prescribed medication for depression and anxiety in the past, and his problems were known to Sheriff Tate and other members of the Holmes County Sheriff’s Office.

On one occasion, Harrison had sex with another officer, Page Fleming; however, no ongoing sexual relationship between the two resulted. After receiving a call from Fleming’s ex-husband, Major Michael Raley with the Holmes County Sheriff’s Office confronted Harrison and Fleming, and each denied there was “anything going on between them.”

One afternoon Fleming received a call from Harrison, who was crying and nearly incomprehensible. When she found Harrison in an unmarked police vehicle, he was obviously drunk and holding a handgun. Fleming watched Harrison point the gun at himself and heard a gunshot. She administered first aid to a chin wound until first responders arrived. Harrison was hospitalized and discharged the next day.

For his wound, Harrison received 12 weeks of FMLA leave. The FMLA paperwork reported that Harrison had “acute stress disorder” and exhibited “mental health disorders.”

Officer asked to resign

While Harrison was on FMLA leave, Major Raley let him know that if he did not resign, Sheriff Tate would investigate his shooting and the allegations of a sexual relationship with Fleming “to support terminating him.” The day he was scheduled to return to work from FMLA leave, Harrison received a notice of internal investigation for “unbecoming conduct,” “use of intoxicants” and “testimony and truthfulness.” Harrison resigned that same day.

Disability discrimination claim fails

Thereafter, Harrison sued the Holmes County Sheriff’s Office for discriminatory constructive discharge. According to Harrison, his depression and alcoholism were disabilities under the law, and those disabilities caused his behavior.

His depression and alcoholism did constitute disabilities. Unquestionably, the sheriff’s threat of an investigation if Harrison did not resign amounted to a constructive discharge. Nevertheless, Harrison’s actions endangered himself, other officers, and members of the public. Even if Harrison’s conduct was linked to his depression and alcoholism, the appeals court held that the sheriff was entitled to fire the officer without violating disability discrimination laws.

What this means for employers

No doubt this was an extreme case. But it follows a growing number of decisions that support employers’ rights to take action based on an employee’s unacceptable conduct even when the employee attributes their conduct to a disability. In other words, employers can apply the same performance and conduct yardstick to disabled employees that they apply to other employees.

Harrison v. Sheriff, Holmes County Florida, No. 22-14288 (11th Cir. 2/6/24)