Future discrimination of people with Bipolar Disorder may be more difficult
Bipolar disorder (and many other psychiatric illnesses) carries a relatively big stigma in the workplace. Unless you are in the creative arts, likely, you will not want anyone at your job to know that you have bipolar disorder.
Three years ago, a nursing assistant who worked in an assisted living facility, named Charlotte Massey realized she was in the middle of a manic episode. Charlotte had been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder – and kudos to her for recognizing that she needed to do something about it before it spiraled out of control.
When she called her boss, the owner of the facility, her boss not only didn’t give her “kudos”, he gave her a pink slip. She got fired because she asked to take a leave of absence to deal with her medical issue.
Unlike most people who have been fired for Bipolar Disorder – Charlotte didn’t lose her job because she went wacko. Instead, she maintained enough mental clarity to notify her employer of her disability and was rewarded with… firing.
It is certain that the owner of the facility was aware of the American with Disabilities Act. It is likely that he or she was aware that he could not randomly fire employees with physical or obvious mental disabilities. But, it may be that he was unaware that “mental disabilities” includes illnesses such as bipolar disorder.
The ADA bars discrimination against persons with physical or mental disabilities who can perform the essential functions of their job with “reasonable accommodation” and without imposing an “undue hardship” on the employer.
From the outside, some may say… well she wanted to take time off. In fact, she took a whole five days off, with herself or a family member reporting in each day with the supervisor. When she returned to work after only a week of absence, she was fired.
Part of the law includes an evaluation of whether the employer would be subjected to “undue hardship”. Is giving an employee time off to deal with a medical issue, an employee whose shifts could be made up by another person – an undue hardship?
The court thought it was not. The jury awarded Massey $25,000 in damages for lost wages and benefits and $7,500 in punitive damages.
The employer and his lawyer attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed by claiming that:
• Charlotte Massey wasn’t fired; she resigned
• She had a faulty memory of the events due to her disability
• She never reported her disability to her employer
In fact, none of those were true. Though the employer’s attorney repeatedly referred to the case as “frivolous”, the jury found otherwise.
This award may be the first of its kind, and it may be small, but it is a groundbreaking case. With the ability to claim protections of the ADA, future discrimination may be more difficult.