Employer knew of Navy Yard shooter’s mental instability

by Walter Olson on October 8, 2013

This fairly gripping New York Times account by reporter Serge Kovaleski gives the backstory of the horrendous Navy Yard massacre — a contract employee with a security clearance had been displaying increasingly florid symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, yet was not taken off his job — but is missing one angle I was curious about:

On Aug. 9, the director of human resources for the Experts spoke to Mr. Alexis’ mother, who told the director of his previous paranoid behavior, the person with knowledge of the investigation said. His mother told the director that Mr. Alexis’ paranoia tended to subside with time, but that “he likely needed to see a therapist.”

That same day, the director convened a meeting of “senior-level personnel” at the Experts who concluded that he could be sent back to work. The Hewlett-Packard investigation found that the Experts did not attempt to get Mr. Alexis to seek mental health care, a finding that the Experts has not disputed.

…In an e-mail message, the Experts said that a Hewlett-Packard manager in Newport said she was “comfortable” having Mr. Alexis come back to work after he reported hearing voices.

Hewlett-Packard said its manager in Newport was a low-level employee who was not given full details by the Experts about Mr. Alexis’ problems. The company said it has placed that manager on administrative leave.

The missing angle is: what if any role was played by the legal constraints on the various entities that directly or indirectly employed Mr. Alexis? Severe mental illness is a protected condition under the ADA, and employers may not be free to take workers off their duties unless and until they can assemble evidence that would stand up in court documenting a “direct threat,” “undue hardship” or other adequate reason for removal; the law places limits on the employer’s right to demand medical exams to evaluate the exact contours of disability; and privacy rules limit sharing of medically relevant information between different entities, as we saw in the Seung-Hui Cho/Virginia Tech case. All these rules apply to ordinary larger private businesses, but some come in especially stringent form when applied to federal contractors.

Did any of these legal doctrines influence the course of decision-making by which Mr. Alexis received oddly hands-off treatment even as his mental state spun out of control? One hopes a future NYT article will return to take a look at those questions.

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Advice Goddess Blog
10.09.13 at 1:14 am

{ 5 comments }

1 peter 10.08.13 at 3:40 pm

Perhaps they were relying on his continued employment to meet their Federal mandated Disabled Employee quota…..er….. target….er….benchmark.

2 Boblipton 10.08.13 at 4:11 pm

It struck me as odd until I read the article but “The Experts” is the name of the actual employer of Mr. Alexis. Whatever the results, one can hardly blame Hewlett-Packard for following the advice of The Experts, since the experts (in majuscule or minuscule) always know what should be done after the fact, just like the New York Times.

Bob

3 DensityDuck 10.08.13 at 4:22 pm

Sort of a 9/11 situation; law-enforcement agencies were prevented from sharing information about a possible problem because of concerns over, um, something, police state evil government.

4 Hugo S. Cunningham 10.09.13 at 11:35 am

A Congressional investigation could do great good here– not to name and shame scapegoats, but rather to highlight misguided laws and procedures that interfere with public safety. Congress would have the power to cut through various privacy barriers (on behalf of a dead murderer?!) to find out what happened and what was missed.

5 Doug 10.09.13 at 1:20 pm

ummm, Congress is busy right now doing nothing.

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