Employee Mental Illness – a Recognized Disability

The intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is to provide wide-ranging protection to disabled Americans.  Over time, several federal courts, and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court, interpreted the ADA so narrowly that many arguably impaired individuals were unable to meet the statutory definition of “disabled.”  This trend benefited employers, including school districts.  However, after the Supreme Court significantly narrowed the definition of disability, the Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) to make it significantly easier for employees who suffer from mental illness to meet the statutory definition of “disabled” under the ADA.  Meeting that definition, however, does not mean that all mentally ill employees will automatically prevail under the ADAAA.  For example, the EEOC regulations specify that common personality traits, such as poor judgment or a quick temper, do not constitute impairments when they are not symptoms of a mental or a psychological disorder.  Further, a mentally ill employee must still prove that (1) the employer  is subject to the ADA; (2) the employee was disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (3) the employee was otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation; and (4) the employee suffered an adverse employment action because of his disability.

Several courts have applied these requirements under the ADAAA.  The Southern District Court of New York, in Nelson v. City of New York, decided that the employee’s disability discrimination claim against the city survived summary judgment.  The employee in Nelson was a police officer who had been diagnosed with major depression, anxiety disorders and a personality disorder. She had been on disability leave and applied for reinstatement which was denied based on her “extensive psychological history.” The court first held that the employee met the statutory definition of disabled and was not rehired because the city regarded her as disabled.  The court next turned to whether the employee was qualified to perform the essential functions of the job and the related question of whether she was a direct threat to herself or others.  The court recognized that it was a very close question, but ultimately held that the city failed to demonstrate beyond dispute that the employee was a direct threat and therefore unable to perform the essential functions of the job.

The Eastern District Court of New York in Hong Lin v. North Shore LIJ Health System determined that while an employee who suffered from mental illness met the broadened statutory definition of disability under the ADAAA, she did not have a valid claim since she did not suffer an adverse action and therefore did not meet the fourth prong of the ADAAA.  In Hong Lin the employee was a resident physician who suffered from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The court accepted that her impairment was a disability. The employee claimed that she suffered an adverse action because she received unfair evaluations, had been placed in a remediation program and had been subject to a delay in having her contract renewed. The court held that these actions were not sufficiently severe to constitute an adverse action and dismissed the complaint.

The Western District Court of Pennsylvania, in the 2014 decision of Rubano v. Farrell Area Sch. Dist., interpreted the term “disabled” broadly, but nonetheless granted summary judgment to the employer after finding that the employee did not suffer an adverse employment action because of his disability.  The school employee alleged that he was subject to a hostile work environment and demoted because he suffered from depression.  While the Court found that the employee raised a valid issue as to whether his depression met the statutory definition of disability, the court concluded that no reasonable jury could find that the employee was demoted and harassed based on his disability.  The court explained that the personality conflict and poor relationship between the employee and the school district did not become ADA harassment simply because the employee was disabled.

In ADA mental illness cases, ADAAA has definitely increased the number of employees whose mental impairments meet the statutory definition of disability.  As a result, school districts should focus on whether the employee is “qualified to perform the essential functions of the job” and whether the employee “suffered an adverse employment action because of his disability.”  While mentally ill employees are more likely to have standing as covered individuals with a disability in post-ADAAA cases, school districts should not automatically concede that such employees will ultimately prevail on their ADA claims.

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