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Tourette's Sufferer Not Entitled to Accommodation in Employment

By Elaine Cassel

Tourette's disorder is characterized by strange utterances (such as swearing and barking) known as coprolalia and multiple motor tics (sudden repetitive but irregular movements). Karl Petzold, who has suffered from Tourette's disorder since he was seven years old, was a bagger at a grocery store. His Tourette's disorder caused him to utter obscenities and racial slurs that were offensive to customers with whom he came in contact. He was fired following a series of incidents in which he offended African-American customers. Petzold sued the grocery store, charging that the store was required to make accommodations for his illness under a Michigan law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits most employers from denying employment to persons with physical or mental disabilities unless a disability, in and of itself, renders them unqualified for the job. For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a commercial airline's refusal to hire a commercial pilot who cannot meet the FAA's vision requirements is not discriminatory because the FAA has deemed that a certain level of uncorrected vision is necessary to insure the safety of passengers.

Michigan has a law similar to the federal statute, one that prohibits employment discrimination in situations that would not come within the federal law. But in July 2000, Michigan's Court of Appeals ruled that under the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act, Karl Petzold was not entitled to keep his job.

The court rejected his claim, finding that his offensive language, to which customers, children, and other employees were subjected on a daily basis, made him unfit for his job or any job that requires contact with members of the general public. The employer could not be expected to tolerate the type of language Petzhold used, even though the utterances were involuntary. The court noted that Petzhold could work at other jobs that do not involve contact with the public.

The ruling is consistent with prior interpretations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in July 2000.

To read the opinion in the case of Petzold v. Borman's Inc., State of Michigan Court of Appeals, Case NO. 211567, July 18, 2000, which includes a detailed discussion of coprolalia, go to

For answers to frequently asked questions about the Americans with Disabilities Act, go to the U.S. Department of Justice's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission site at

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