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Sometimes ‘crazy’ is a defense

published in Oklahoma Employment Law Letter | July 1, 2013

By Charles S. Plumb

A recent Oklahoma City federal case offers two lessons for employers. First, it illustrates one of the risks of hiring a relative. Second, it shows that Oklahoma employers can fire an employee they reasonably judge to be a threat to coworkers or customers.

Acting crazy

Oklahoma Heritage Home Care, Inc., hired Dana Ray to work as a clerk in its business office. Ray’s sister was president and owner of Oklahoma Heritage, her brother was the chief financial officer, and her mother was the director of nursing.

While talking with coworkers, Ray explained she had stabbed her ex- husband 58 times and killed him. While telling her story, she made stabbing or lunging motions with her hand. At that point, her mother yelled, “You need to keep your mouth shut girl,” “You’re crazy,” and “You need take your medication again.” After these events, Oklahoma Heritage terminated Ray’s employment for violating its policy prohibiting threatening and aggressive behavior.

Craziness not protected

Ray sued Oklahoma Heritage for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Oklahoma Anti-Discrimination Act, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and for intentional infliction of emotional distress. In addition to suing her employer, she named her mother, the director of nursing, as an individual defendant. The Oklahoma City federal court rejected her claims and dismissed her lawsuit.

The court reasoned that Oklahoma Heritage didn’t fire Ray because of any disability. Instead, it was held to be within its rights to end her employment for violating its threatening and aggressive behavior policy. That was true even though Ray claimed her coworkers hadn’t felt threatened by her behavior and conduct.

In Ray’s case, although hiring a relative obviously wasn’t the best idea, it worked to the employer’s benefit when faced with the termination lawsuit. In throwing out her claims, the court found it was significant that the people who hired her and decided to fire were also family members. Ray v. Oklahoma Heritage Home Care, Inc., CIV-11-1452-C (W.D. Okla., 5/29/13).

Bottom line

In this instance, Oklahoma Heritage was fortunate that Ray’s behavior didn’t escalate into something more serious that could endanger coworkers, clients, or Ray herself. You should put in place a general policy advising employees that threatening, intimidating, or confrontational conduct won’t be tolerated and will subject an employee to discipline, including discharge. If that type of behavior does arise in the workplace, it’s important for you to act decisively to stop events from spiraling into something more serious.