A jury sitting in federal court in Massachusetts has awarded an employee with a mental health condition millions of dollars for the employer’s failure to reasonable accommodate a mental illness. The failure to do so led to the employee’s unwarranted dismissal.
Both the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and its state analogue, c. 151B, require an employer to participate in an interactive process to attempt to accommodate a covered disability. In this instance an employee with severe anxiety disorder was not reasonably accommodated when her job requirements were made to be more “public” by her employer. The original job description called for operational leadership and business development, among other things, but did not specify how these goals were to be obtained.
Soon after starting, the employee was allowed to work remotely (in MA) due to family issues. After this move, and after a relatively poor year, the employee’s boss indicated that her job would become “more visible,” requiring routine client visits, large social interactions and live presentations to foster increased success.
These role adjustments caused Plaintiff great anxiety and distress, with severe physical symptoms. Soon thereafter the employee for the first time disclosed to her employer her general anxiety disorder, which included social anxiety and panic attacks. Upon this notice, the H.R. Department sent the Plaintiff accommodation request forms. In response, the employee’s psychiatrist sent specific accommodation requests to H.R. These included fewer in-person appearances by Plaintiff, smaller audiences, as well as surrogate attendees in her place for certain events, such as large in-person sales meetings.
The company responded by offering Plaintiff an “exit package,” or transition to a company consulting role. The company insisted that core job requirements included in-person business development meetings, client dinners and the like.
While the court in the pre-trial phase found that the company had participated in the required “interactive process,” it let the other questions of reasonable accommodation and whether there was an adverse employment action, up to the jury. The company did in fact fire the employee when she was on an extended leave of absence for her anxiety disorder.
Ultimately, the jury found that the company failed to provide the employee with a reasonable accommodation and had engaged in disparate treatment and adverse employment action. The jury also found unlawful retaliation. The multimillion-dollar award included compensation for disability discrimination and/or retaliation, front pay, damages for emotional distress and punitive damages in the amount of $10 million.
The case clearly demonstrates the need for counsel’s advice when such situations arise.
Andrew Botti provides practical, common-sense solutions to complicated legal issues and litigation in the areas of business, commercial and employment law.