Deputy’s Inability To Get Along With Co-Workers Does Not State ADA Claim

Susan Lanman began working for Johnson County, Kansas as a deputy sheriff in 1987. Beginning in March 2001, Lanman believed that some of her co-workers in the Classification Unit began treating her as if she were mentally ill, sometimes calling her “nuts” or “crazy.” Lanman claimed that when someone “hyped up on drugs” or “hostile” would be placed in a special holding cell (1A4), Deputy Judd Brungardt would tell her “Lanman, there is someone like you. Go get your relative out of 1A4. They act just like you.” She also contended Deputy Bernie Beletsky made comments like the following approximately once a week: “Oh Lanman, you are going off the deep end again,” or “Let’s give her some chocolate and let’s see her go off the deep end,” and “Are you off your medication,” or “Why don’t you try a different medication.”

In April 2001, after Lanman had been working in Classifications for several years, she made serious errors misclassifying inmates, and she was transferred to Operations. Commenting on her transfer, she patted a fellow Classifications deputy on the cheek three times and said, “I sure am going to miss working with you, Pieruccie. You are one of the nice ones that I had to work with.” Deputy Pieruccie filed a written report of the incident saying her actions “confused [him] and made [him] feel very uncomfortable.” A sergeant also filed a written report claiming that Lanman veered her vehicle back and forth in the parking lot as she drove towards him.

Based on these events, Lanman was placed on administrative leave on May 9, pending the results of a psychological fitness-for-duty exam. The treating physician found no signs she was unfit for duty and cleared her to return to work. She was never disciplined for the incidents reported by the sergeant or Pieruccie.

Upon returning to duty on June 13, Lanman was interviewed by Captain Brett Cortright. They discussed her prior problems, and he told her she was starting fresh without regard to the past. Lanman became emotional and stated she did not understand why people thought so negatively of her. Captain Cortright told her she should consider quitting if things were not working out for her, and she was relieved from further duty that day due to her emotional state.

On June 18, Lanman reported for duty in her new unit and was assigned to work with a training officer. She confronted her supervisors about the assignment, arguing that she was an experienced officer and did not need to be trained; however, the assignment was not changed. She then went to her duty station in the jail and yelled at her fellow officers in front of the inmates. As a result, she was suspended for three days without pay.

After taking almost a month of medical leave, Lanman was set to return to work in mid-July. However, a few days before, the officers were informed at roll call that she would be returning and told that any concerns they might have could be raised privately with the supervising sergeant. Upon hearing this had occurred, Lanman submitted her resignation stating she wanted to pursue other career opportunities, and she never returned to work. In a termination form given to the County, she further stated she “felt the need to voluntarily resign due to the extreme hostile conditions [she] faced repeatedly since 2001.” Lanman then filed suit against the County alleging violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

The County first argued that the sort of claim Lanman was raising – a hostile work environment claim – could not be brought under the ADA. A federal appeals court rejected this contention, finding strong parallels between the ADA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which allows hostile work environment claims. The Court observed: “In construing Title VII, the Supreme Court held that the phrase ‘terms, conditions, or privileges of employment’ evinces a congressional intent to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of gender in employment. After reviewing the similarities between Title VII and the ADA, nothing indicates that Congress intended disability-based employment discrimination to be treated any less expansively. Thus, we hold that a hostile work environment claim is actionable under the ADA.”

Lanman ultimately lost the case, however, when the Court found she was not “disabled” as the term is defined by the ADA. The ADA allows those with impairments substantially limiting major life activities to sue either if they actually have such impairments or if they are “regarded as” having such an impairment. Lanman argued that she fell under the “regarded as” aspect of the ADA.

The Court was quite skeptical of the factual predicate for Lanman’s claim, observing: “We think it doubtful that comments by non-supervisory co-workers about Lanman’s mental health establish that the County mistakenly perceived her as mentally impaired. Personality conflicts among coworkers (even those expressed through the use (or misuse) of mental health terminology) generally do not establish a perceived impairment on the part of the employer.”

More critically, Lanman could not show that any impairment the County regarded her as having was one that “substantially limited a major life activity” as required by the ADA. The Court found that even “assuming interacting with others is a recognized major life activity, mere trouble getting along with co-workers is not sufficient to show a substantial limitation. Thus, Lanman would have to show she was perceived by her employer as being unable to interact with people in general on a regular basis. The interactions she experienced with some of her co-workers do not satisfy this standard.”

Lanman v. Johnson County, Kansas, 393 F.3d 1151 (10th Cir. 2004).

This article appears in the April 2005 issue