November 1996

Workplace Labor Update - Dangerous Disabled Employee Fired – November 1996

3 min

The Fourth Circuit recently decided that a federal marshal with a paranoid personality disorder was not qualified to carry a firearm, an essential function of his job, without posing a risk of harm to others and dismissed his claim of disability discrimination. Lassiter v. Reno, 86 F.3d 1151 (4th Cir. 1996).

Albert Lassiter worked as a deputy federal marshal for the United States Marshall Service ("USMS"). As a result of a psychiatric disorder, Lassiter believed that his elderly neighbor, her grandson and others were conspiring to burglarize his house. To foil this supposed conspiracy, Lassiter pretended that he was going on vacation, snuck back into his house, and laid in wait for the burglars. He did not turn on any lights, cook food in his oven, flush his toilet, answer his phone, or pick up his mail. To remain alert at night, he slept by day. During the night he waited, armed with a doublebarrel shotgun and a .45 caliber automatic pistol, wearing a bulletproof vest and holding a night vision scope. He remained in touch with the police department so that he could request backup when it became necessary. After investigating and finding no evidence of a conspiracy, the police escorted Lassiter to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation where he was diagnosed with a paranoid personality disorder ¾ a condition that causes a patient to suffer from delusions of being conspired against, cheated, followed, or maliciously maligned.

After learning of this diagnosis, the USMS attempted to find a position for Lassiter in which he would not be required to carry a firearm. None was available, so the USMS terminated Lassiter's employment. Lassiter sued the USMS, claiming that his employer should have accommodated his disability.

The USMS did not dispute that Lassiter had a disability or that it terminated him because of his disability. Instead, the USMS argued that Lassiter was not "otherwise qualified" for the job because he could not carry a firearm without posing a significant risk to the health or safety of others. The court agreed, noting that a federal marshal is required to make instant decisions about whether a situation warrants the use of deadly force. The court rejected the opinions of several of the doctors who felt that Lassiter exhibited a low potential for impulsive violence. Although Lassiter may not have been "presently dangerous," the court concluded that his overly suspicious disposition, his frequent belief that others were exploiting or trying to harm him, and his tendency to read demeaning or threatening meanings into benign remarks posed a significant risk to the safety of others.

Lassiter also argued that the USMS should have accommodated his disability by either allowing him to return to work and regain his firearms privileges over time, or by reassigning him to another position in which he would not be required to carry a firearm. The court held that neither of these accommodations were required. The court explained that an employer need only accommodate an employee if doing so would allow the employee to presently perform the essential functions of his job. According to the court, an employer is not, as a matter of reasonable accommodation, required to reassign an employee to another position if he is not otherwise qualified for the one he presently holds.

This decision demonstrates that there are situations in which employees pose a danger to the health and safety of others because of a disability and cannot be reasonably accommodated. Because the court sets a high standard for such a finding, an employer should carefully review with counsel any situation involving a potentially dangerous disabled employee to determine whether that employee should be accommodated.