What if you observe one of your employees engaging in odd behavior at work? What if you know that this employee suffers from mental illnesses, and you suspect that this mental illness might be contributing to this odd behavior? Can you fire that employee or make him or her seek counseling? Is this a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?
This issue was presented to a court recently. A former employee of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation filed a lawsuit against the Department claiming that it violated her rights under the Rehabilitation Act, which is a law similar to the ADA. The employee claimed that she suffered from a mental illness, and that she was fired because of her mental illness. The ADA and Rehabilitation Act both prohibit employers from taking negative action against an employee based on that employee’s medical condition without first making changes in the workplace to allow that employee to work in spite of his or her condition.
The employee had a number of problems at work, receiving poor reviews. One day, she had an anxiety-related issue, where she started crying in the lobby of the DMV. Her co-workers saw cut marks on her wrist, which she admitted were due to a suicide attempt. She lamented the fact that the attempt was not successful.
Her employer required her to take medical leave after this incident and to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. The psychiatrist determined that the she could be a danger to herself and others. As a result, the Department fired her. She then sued the Department, alleging that it fired her because of her mental illness, a violation of the Rehabilitation Act.
The court, however, dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the employer did not violate the law. The court noted that it is not a violation of the ADA or Rehabilitation Act to fire an employee who poses a danger to the workplace. The court held that an employer does not need to tolerate threatening and unacceptable behavior in the workplace, even if that behavior stems from a mental illness.
The lesson that employers can take from this case is that an employee can be fired or disciplined for engaging in inappropriate or threatening behavior at work, even if that behavior is caused by a medical condition like a mental illness. Employers must walk a fine line, however. They cannot take negative action against an employee merely because of his or her mental illness. Nor can an employer refuse to hire a job applicant because he or she suffers from a mental illness. Only when that illness gets in the way of work performance or causes behavior that violates workplace rules can an employer discipline the employee.
For more information about this issue, or for other questions about your employees, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 312-604-9125.