We are seeing a significant increase in mental and developmental disability claims brought before both the EEOC and Illinois Department of Human Rights. An escalating number of employees with alleged depression, bipolar disorder, autism, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorders and anxiety disorders among other mental health conditions are asserting discrimination, ADA and retaliation claims against their employers alleging that they were treated unfairly and/or fired because of their protected mental health condition.
While one certainly can be sympathetic to an individual with such a condition, as with any physical or medical condition which constitutes a disability under Title VII or state law, an employer can successfully defend a mental health disability Title VII claim by establishing that the subject claimant employee could not perform the essential functions of his/her position with or without a reasonable accommodation or accommodate the employee without undue hardship. Similarly, if the employer can establish it was unaware of the alleged mental health condition/disability of the employee and proceeds to terminate the employee, it should not be held liable for some form of disability discrimination or retaliation.
Such was the situation in a case Storrs Downey recently handled before the Illinois Department of Human Rights (“IDHR”). In successfully convincing the IDHR to dismiss an employee’s claim against the firm’s client, Storrs established that the employer had no knowledge the employee was on the autism spectrum, it sought to accommodate and help the employee despite being unaware of the employee’s condition and solely terminated the employee because she consistently could not perform the key functions of her job.
The employer had well-documented the employee’s job performance and had well-written job duties which the IDHR relied upon in part in reaching its decision.
In addition to treating employees with mental health conditions with dignity and respect employers should reasonably accommodate such employees related disabilities, if any.