Rage Fits Justified San Fran Professor’s Firing

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A math professor who terrorized University of San Francisco colleagues with fits of “irrational, uncontrollable rage” does not have a civil-rights case, an appeals court ruled.
     John Kao’s history at USF began in 1991 when he began teaching at the university after receiving his doctorate in applied mathematics from Princeton. He became tenured at USF in 1997, according to trial testimony.
     Nine years later, however, Kao lodged a 485-page complaint with school officials out of concern with the alleged lack of diversity in the math and computer-science departments. He filed a 41-page addendum a year later, taking the school to task for not addressing his concerns or offering to fix new-faculty recruitment.
     Kao’s colleagues testified that they began to fear Kao in 2008. They said Kao flew off the handle, “shaking with anger” and “screaming,” during a faculty-search meeting, and that he would purposely collide with colleagues when passing them in the hall.
     USF launched an investigation involving consulting clinical and forensic psychologists and psychiatrists, and school officials ordered Kao to undergo a fitness-to-work exam in 2008. They stressed to the professor that examiner would be permitted only to give the school a statement on Kao’s fitness to work and specific functional limitations, with all other medical aspects of the exam remaining confidential.
     Kao refused and – after nearly a year of back-and-forth between the university and Kao’s attorney – the school fired him.
     At trial, Kao admitted to suffering from depression but denied that he had ever intentionally threatened or bumped into anyone at USF. His personal psychiatrist also testified, confirming that Kao suffered from “episodic major depressive disorder” but adding that she had seen nothing to indicate that Kao was a danger to anyone at the school.
     The jury found for USF on the alleged Fair Employment and Housing Act, Unruh Civil Rights Act, Confidentiality of Medical Information Act and privacy violations.
     On appeal to the First Appellate District, Kao argued that the university had no business ordering a fitness exam before it had gone through the required interactive process. A three-judge panel affirmed for USF in a decision published Wednesday.
     The 22-page opinion notes that Kao has never acknowledged having a disability or requested accommodation for it.
     “Unless a disability is obvious, it is the employee’s burden to initiate the interactive process,” Judge Peter Siggins wrote for the court. “Kao cannot plausibly claim it should have been obvious to USF that he was disabled because he never admitted any disability in the workplace. When a disability is not obvious, the employee must submit ‘reasonable medical documentation confirming its existence.’ Kao did nothing of the sort. He provided no information to USF after learning of the university’s concerns other than documents at the October 2008 meeting, which were aimed at showing that those concerns were illusory.”
     It was proper for the university to require a fitness exam, and safety concerns justified banning Kao from campus, the panel agreed.
     “There was substantial evidence for a legitimate concern that Kao was dangerous absent an independent evaluation to the contrary,” Siggins wrote. “Moreover, the thrust of the evidence was that USF did not know what was causing Kao’s behavior, not that it had determined his behavior resulted from a disability.
     “The evidence did not as a matter of law establish that USF had a discriminatory motive in keeping Kao away from campus,” the judge added.

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