Webinar discussing when mental illnesses are disabilities under the ADA and what accommodations may be expected. Maybe it’s the Internet; however, it seems that we read about an employee with a history of psychiatric illness coming to work one day and injuring/killing many.
Former Navy reservist suffering from paranoia killed 12 people at a Washington Navy Yard. He claimed he had been hearing voices and was being treated for mental illness in the weeks before the shooting rampage. A fired employee killed six at Accent Signage – his parents stated that they had seen signs of schizophrenia but that he shut out offers of help. Psychiatric illnesses are hard to detect – you don’t see the broken leg, check an individual’s blood count. These illnesses are based on “symptoms” and “behaviors” that are often progressive in nature. Medications to deal with the symptoms or behaviors are very much trial and error. Sometimes individuals with strange behaviors are, well, just strange and don’t have a psychiatric illness at all. Employers are not psychiatrists but they are required to accommodate individuals with mental impairments that substantially limit a major life activity. What does an employer do when an employee is “acting strange”? What are the employer’s obligations when an employee has a diagnosed mental illness?
Mental illnesses are costly for employers – either due to decreased productivity, excessive absenteeism, and, unfortunately, due to the individual harming others in the workplace. Employers walk a very fine line when dealing with these illnesses – the line of accommodation required under the ADA and the line of co-workers unfounded fears when someone has a mental illness or is just plain “strange.” No company wants to be handling situations where an employee walks in one day and systematically shoots, maims, kills, etc., other employees in the workplace. The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to those with mental impairments that substantially limit their major life activities unless (1) the accommodation causes an undue hardship on the employer; or (2) the employee poses a direct threat either to his safety or the safety of others. What does this mean to employers? How does an employer handle employee’s unwarranted fears?
Susan Fahey Desmond is a principal with Jackson Lewis PC which has offices across the United States. She has been representing management in all areas of labor and employment law since her graduation from the University of Tennessee School of Law in 1985 and is a frequent author and speaker on labor and employment law issues. She is listed in Best Lawyers in America for labor and employment law and has been named by Chambers USA as one of America's leading business lawyers.