Court To USPS: Retire Not Fire Postal Veteran With PTSD

Lanny Jarvis, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, began working for the Postal Service in 1988 after a medical examination determined that he was fit for duty despite several war injuries. Ten years later, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD). In 2002, he transferred to the Spanish Fork postal facility in Utah and started experiencing PTSD-related incidents with coworkers.

Here is what led up to his firing:

A Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder posed a threat to others and was properly terminated by the U.S. Postal Service, but USPS failed to explain why he was denied pay, leave, and disability retirement, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled Aug. 30, remanding the case on those issues

On two occasions, Lanny Bart Jarvis struck and kicked a co-worker when she startled him, and he later struck another co-worker who shoved him in passing. He was able to restrain himself from striking his manager when she startled him.Jarvis told the supervisor he had PTSD and asked that co-workers be told to announce themselves before approaching him.

When Jarvis was terminated after an investigation, he sued under the Rehabilitation Act in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, which ruled for USPS. That court found that the risk of violence could not be eliminated by a reasonable accommodation because the accommodation Jarvis sought—that co-workers announce themselves—would not eliminate the possibility that he might be startled accidentally. His request was not reasonable, the district court said, because it attempted to shift to co-workers the burden of preventing him from engaging in violence.

Qualification at Issue
“The postal service does not dispute on appeal that Mr. Jarvis is an individual with a disability,” the Tenth Circuit said. “The issue before us is whether he is ‘otherwise qualified,’ ” it said.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which provides guidance in Rehabilitation Act cases, defines “qualified individual with a disability” as one who “with or without a reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position,” the court said. “In other words, one who cannot perform the essential functions of the job, even with a reasonable accommodation, is not an ‘otherwise qualified’ individual,” the court said.

An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulation defines “direct threat” as a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation,” the court said. The rule states that the factors at issue include the duration of the risk, the nature and severity of the potential harm, the likelihood that the potential harm will occur, and the imminence of the potential harm, it said.

“In our view, the record compels the conclusion that the postal service’s determination that Mr. Jarvis was a direct threat was an objectively reasonable decision,” the court found.

In addition to Jarvis’s three assaults on co-workers, evidence included a letter from Jarvis’s health-care provider stating that his PTSD was unlikely to dissipate and that he was a threat in the workplace. USPS also relied on Jarvis’s own statements that his PTSD was getting worse, that he could no longer stop at the first blow, and that, if he hit someone in the right place, the blow could be fatal, the court said.

“Based on this evidence, three of the four factors in the EEOC regulations—duration, imminence, and likelihood—were clearly met,” the court said. Jarvis’s “symptoms would last indefinitely, he could erupt at any moment if startled, and it was highly likely that someone would startle him, even if inadvertently.”

“The postal service was not required to ignore the risk of inadvertent startling,” the court said, affirming the district court’s dismissal of Jarvis’s discrimination claim.

However, with regard to Jarvis’s retaliation claims, the appeals court said USPS “has not explained why Mr. Jarvis was denied the opportunity to retire rather than be terminated or why he was denied pay and access to accrued vacation and sick leave while he was on administrative leave.” As a result, the court said, it was necessary to reverse the dismissal of those claims and send them back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Jarvis vs USPS (PDF)