Dealing with Employee Mental Disabilities Under the ADA

face-535761_1280When interviewing applicants and making employment decisions, keep in mind that mentally disabled employees are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Many individuals with psychiatric disorders face employment discrimination because their disabilities are stigmatized or misunderstood.  According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal government has received a large number of complaints about discrimination due to these disabilities.  As an employer, you must be aware of what comprises a mental disorder and how to legally deal with an employee who is mentally disabled.

Determining a psychiatric disability is a complicated matter.  The ADA requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” for employees who suffer from mental impairments, which the law describes as “any mental or psychological disorder, such as… emotional or mental illness.”

Examples of emotional and mental disabilities include:

  • Major depression;
  • Bipolar disorder;
  • Anxiety disorders (including panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder);
  • Schizophrenia; and
  • Personality disorders.

The ADA doesn’t cover employees who are illegally using drugs.  It also doesn’t include situations when an individual is seeking treatment for a problem that is not defined as a mental disorder, such as counseling for a troubled child.

A legal disability must “substantially limit” one or more of a person’s major life activities.  Although the activities differ from person to person, and a determination must be made on a case-by-case basis, some of the areas that can be involved are:

  • Learning, thinking and concentrating;
  • Social interaction;
  • Caring for oneself and sleeping;
  • Speaking; and
  • Performing manual tasks or working.

The Test: To establish a psychiatric disability, employees don’t always need to show that they are substantially limited in the ability to work.  The effect on a major life activity is the primary consideration.  Work comes into play only if no other major life activity is substantially limited by impairment.

Accommodating mental disabilities in the workplace is a complex issue.  If you have any questions about your responsibilities under the ADA, contact your attorney.

A Case Involving Bipolar Disorder

A chain of payday lending stores was sued by the EEOC in 2009 for refusing to make reasonable accommodations for an employee with bipolar disorder.  According to the EEOC, four months after being hired, Sean Reilly was promoted from assistant manager to store manager at the company’s location in Walla Walla, Washington.  He was prescribed new medication for his bipolar disorder and asked for time off from work to adjust to the drug.

The employer allegedly ignored Reilly’s request.  The company then fired him, according to the lawsuit, and refused to give a reason for the termination.

Reilly said, “After my diagnosis, I really challenged myself to beat the odds and do well at work.  I was proud of my promotion and of my performance.  It was crushing to me to be fired for no reason other than needing a few days off to adjust to new medication.”

The EEOC is seeking monetary damages and extra prevention from the company in order to prevent future violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

From the EEOC:

Q. Are traits or behaviors in themselves mental impairments?

A. No.  For example, stress, in itself, is not automatically a mental impairment.  Stress, however, may be shown to be related to a mental or physical impairment.  Similarly, traits like irritability, chronic lateness, and poor judgment are not, in themselves, mental impairments, although they may be linked to mental impairments.

–Source: EEOC Enforcement Guidance on the Americans with Disabilities Act and Psychiatric Disabilities


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