TRENTON, N.J. (CN) - A truck driver accused of threatening to kill his co-workers shouldn't have been fired for refusing to take a psychological exam, New Jersey's appeals court rule.
In a 22-page opinion issued Jan. 25, the New Jersey Appellate Division wrote that the psych exam "was not reasonably justified" and that the town relied on "innuendo and rumor" in an anonymous letter instead of conducting a thorough investigation of the employee's job performance.
Paul Williams, who began working as a truck driver for the Department of Public Works in Lakewood, N.J. in 2004, was fired a decade later for refusing to take a psychological exam. The exam was requested months after the town received an anonymous letter that warned of Williams' mental state.
In the March 2013 letter, the anonymous author called Williams a "time bomb waiting to explode" and wrote that "we as co-workers dread being assigned with him and everyone knows he has some sort of mental issues."
The letter also references an outburst Williams had with three union stewards, who the letter names.
Lakewood reportedly did nothing in response to the letter for eight months, but in December 2013 the town told Williams he would need to undergo psychological exams or else face disciplinary action.
Williams complained the exams were not job-related and illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and he refused to attend.
The town then fired Williams, who immediately appealed for a departmental hearing. After the case wound its way to an administrative law judge, Williams' boss testified that he was sometimes confrontational and had been written up at least once for failing to help another employee, but that he was also "no different than any other employee."
Lakewood also admitted during testimony that it had never forced another employee to undergo psychological examination due to not helping another employee.
The judge ultimately sided with Williams, saying Lakewood did not investigate the anonymous letter and that the psych exam wasn't related to Williams' work performance. The judge added that he found no evidence of Williams posing a physical threat to his coworkers.
Williams was reinstated as a truck driver and given back pay. However, a hearing by the Civil Service Commission determined that Williams' refusal to take the tests was "significantly egregious" and counted as insubordination.
The commission gave him a six-month suspension and ordered Williams to undergo a psych exam, which would determine whether he was fit to return to work.
On appeal, the Appellate Division ruled against that order, writing that psych exams count as medical exams under the ADA and are therefore legal only if job-related.
The court cited the testimony of Williams' boss, who said Williams was "no different than any other employee" and that no other disciplined employee had ever been forced to undergo psychological examination.
"The Township did not present any evidence that [Williams] had threatened other employees," Judge Michael Haas wrote in the opinion, noting that Lakewood failed to act for eight months after receiving the anonymous letter. "During that time, [Williams] performed the duties of his position without incident."
Haas also warned about relying on anonymous letters. "The information in the letter was exactly the type of innuendo and rumor that the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] has advised employers is insufficient to support a mandatory evaluation."
Instead of simply accepting what was said in the letter as true, Lakewood should have investigated Williams' job performance and contacted union stewards about his alleged 2013 outburst. "Contrary to the Township's contention, it was not powerless to take appropriate action after it received the anonymous letter," Haas wrote.
The Appellate Division ordered Williams reinstated and back pay calculated for his time suspended.
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