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Accommodating Mental Disabilities

A recent case from New York provides fodder for a discussion of the scope of an employer’s obligation to accommodate an employee’s mental disability. A law firm fired one of its attorneys after learning that he attempted to have charges for adult movies and calls to escort services to the firm’s clients. The attorney sued for discrimination and failure to accommodate his bipolar disorder. The New York Division of Human Rights awarded him $600,000, but the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court tossed out the award. Hazen v. Hill Betts & Nash, LLP, Case No. 104781/10 (N.Y. App. Div. Jan. 5, 2012). “[A] petitioner’s disability does not shield him from the consequences of workplace misconduct.”

Although the court’s conclusion accurately described the circumstances of that case, employers must engage in a more nuanced analysis to avoid liability. For example, employees with mental disabilities that cause them to violate workplace attendance policies may nonetheless be entitled to an accommodation. See Humphrey 
v. Memorial Hospitals Association, 239 F.3d 1128 (9th Cir. 2001) (medical transcriptionist with obsessive-compulsive order that prevented her from getting to work on time might be entitled to work from home or to unpaid time off to bring her disability under control). The EEOC has opined that a schizophrenic warehouse worker who violates a company’s conduct toward others and dress policies may be entitled to a pass. See
EEOC Enforcement Guidance on the Americans with Disabilities Act and Psychiatric Disabilities, No. 30, Example C.

An employer should use the following analysis to determine its responsibilities when dealing with an employee who has violated an employer’s workplace conduct standards:

  1.  Does the employer have information from which it could reasonably conclude that the employee has a disability? If an employer does not know that an employee has a disability, it cannot be accused of discrimination, and has no obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation. Further, an employer may not even inquire about a possible disability unless it has a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that: (1) an employee’s ability to perform essential job functions will be impaired by a medical condition; or (2) an employee will pose a direct threat due to a medical condition.
  2. Is the workplace conduct standard job-related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity? The EEOC’s opinion that the warehouse worker referred to in its guidelines might be entitled to a pass on the conduct and dress policies was based on its conclusion that those policies were not job-related for a warehouse worker with no customer contact.
  3. Is there a reasonable accommodation that would allow the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job despite the disability? The EEOC Enforcement Guidance gives the following example: A reference librarian frequently loses her temper at work, disrupting the library atmosphere by shouting at patrons and coworkers. After receiving a suspension as the second step in uniform, progressive discipline, she discloses her disability, states that it causes her behavior, and requests a leave of absence for treatment. The employer may discipline her because she violated a conduct standard — a rule prohibiting disruptive behavior towards patrons and coworkers — that is job-related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity. The employer, however, must grant her request for a leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation, barring undue hardship, to enable her to meet this conduct standard in the future. See No. 31, Example A.