Individuals with mental disorders face unique difficulties when it comes to seeking the protections and benefits of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA). The definition of “disability” under the ADA explicitly includes “mental impairments” that substantially limit one or more major life activities but it can be much harder for someone suffering from a mental illness to demonstrate such a limitation. If you add in employer skepticism and the general cultural stigma in relation to mental illness, you begin to see the additional challenges confronting individuals with mental disabilities. However, a recent case from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals provides a good example of what protections these individuals can receive to protect their employment. See McMillan v. City of New York, 711 F.3d 120 (2d Cir. 2013).
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In McMillan, an employee had schizophrenia that was controlled by medication. One of the side effects of the employee’s medication was that it caused significant drowsiness and sluggishness in the mornings. For over a decade, due to his medication, the employee arrived late to work. All of these tardies were either explicitly or implicitly approved by his supervisor and the employee was never disciplined for tardiness. The employee’s supervisor’s supervisor changed over and began directing the employee’s supervisor to refuse to approve any further tardies. The employee provided documentation that the tardies were caused by his medication and that the medication could not be changed and requested an accommodation that would allow him to arrive later to work and remain later in the day or work through lunch. The employer refused the accommodation, stating that a supervisor would not be available later in the day, and, after further tardies, placed the employee on a 30 day suspension without pay. The employee brought suit challenging the suspension. The trial court dismissed the employee’s suit finding that arriving at work was an essential function of the employee’s job and requesting a later start time was unreasonable as a matter of law.
On appeal, the court began by analyzing the “essential” nature of the employee’s start time and noting the importance of a “penetrating factual analysis.” The court noted that normally timely arrival is an essential function of a job but that the record in this case demonstrated nearly a decade of allowed tardiness in combination with other policies that allowed employee flexibility in setting their time of work. Therefore the court held that timely arrival was not necessarily an essential function of this position and that the employee could request accommodations that modified arrival time. The court then looked at the employee’s requested accommodations and found that dismissal of the claims was inappropriate because a reasonable juror could have found them to allow the employee to complete the essential functions of the job without placing an undue hardship on the employer. The appeal court then sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.
McMillan, like all disability and discrimination cases, turns on a unique set of circumstances but should provide some hope to individuals dealing with mental illness. There are steps that your employer may be obligated to take to allow you to complete your work. If you are suffering from a mental illness, and it is impairing your work environment, it is important to take steps as soon as possible to rectify the situation, this could mean having a conversation with your supervisor, physician, or even an attorney. If you are a Missouri NEA member you should contact your UniServ Director as soon as possible so that you can get the help you deserve.