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Published: 2008-03-26

Mental Disorders, Job Stress and the ADA



An increasing number of employees have attempted to base ADA claims on job stresses such as difficult working conditions or an unpleasant boss. In a typical scenario, an employee claims that the relationship with his or her boss or co-workers, or the nature of the job itself is so stressful that it has caused the employee to become mentally ill. The employee says a "reasonable accommodation" is needed in the form of a new boss, an easier work schedule, or leave of absence. Perhaps some accommodations are extended, perhaps not. The employee's performance continues to deteriorate, however, which is attributed to discrimination, harassment, and the employer's failure to fully accommodate the "disability". Ultimately, the employee is terminated for poor work performance and sues, alleging a violation of the ADA.

Fortunately for employers, most such claims have been unsuccessful, as they are unable to satisfy the three part test for ADA coverage. The ADA provides a three step process for determining whether an employee or applicant is protected by the ADA. Unless an individual meets the criteria for coverage, an employer has no obligation to "reasonably accommodate" that individual. The first step, therefore, is to determine whether the individual complaining of job stress has an impairment; that is, a recognized diagnosable mental disorder. If so, it must then be determined whether the impairment substantially limits a major life activity. Third, in spite of the impairment, it must be determined whether the individual is able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation.

Even if an employee succeeds in having job stress covered by the ADA, employers are limited in the extent to which they must make accommodations. Transfer to another boss or elimination of stressful but essential aspects of the job are not usually required.

  1. Mental Disorders: Impairments or Disabilities?

    The ADA defines a covered disability as,

    1. A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of the individual,
    2. A record of such impairment, or
    3. Being regarded as having such impairment.

    EEOC regulations implementing the ADA define mental impairment to include any "mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities". 29 C.F.R. §1630.2(h).

    The ADA's legislative history and at least one reported case indicate that Congress intended that only mental disorders as defined in the current edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) will qualify as "mental impairments" potentially covered by the ADA. Dertz v. City of Chicago, 1997 WL 85169(N.D. Ill. 1997). Recently, the EEOC issued its "Enforcement Guidance on the Americans With Disabilities Act and Psychiatric Disabilities." 405 Fair Empl. Prac. Man. (BNA) 7461. It states that the DSM is "relevant" for identifying the mental disorders that may qualify for ADA coverage. For example, job stress is not in itself a mental disorder that appears anywhere in the DSM. In addition, the EEOC has announced its position that stress, in itself, is not automatically a mental impairment.

    To qualify as a "disability" under the ADA, the mental impairment must result in "substantial limitation of one or more major life activities," such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, working, and learning. In its 1995 Guidance on the Definition of the Term Disability, the EEOC added "mental and emotional processes such as thinking, concentrating, and interacting with others." 405 Fair Empl. Prac. Man. (BNA) at 7261.

    However, recent case law suggests that the EEOC's Guidance exceeds or conflicts with the ADA in some respects, and is largely unworkable in many respects. In some instances, case law has expressly rejected the EEOC Guidance. For example, the First Circuit recently rejected an employee's claim that he was substantially limited in the major life activity of getting along with his boss. Soileau v. Guilford of Maine, Inc., 105 F.3d 12 (1st Cir. 1997). Similarly, the Seventh Circuit held that a personality conflict with a supervisor or co-worker does not establish a disability as a matter of law, even if it produces anxiety and depression as such conflicts often do. Such a conflict is not disabling, observed the court. At most, it requires the worker to get a new job. Palmer v. Circuit Court of Cook County, 117 F.3d 351 (7th Cir. 1997).

  2. Does the Impairment Substantially Limit a Major Life Activity?

    Not every impairment qualifies for ADA coverage, only those that substantially limit one or more major life activities. An individual is "substantially limited" when he or she is significantly restricted as to the condition, manner or duration under which he can perform a particular major life activity as compared to the average person in the general population.

    This is an important limitation where claims of job stress and/or mental impairments are concerned, because the recent EEOC Guidance on Psychiatric Disabilities explains that an impairment is "substantially limiting if it last for more than several months and significantly restricts the performance of one or more major life activities during that time."

  3. Can the Employee Perform the Essential Functions of the Job?

    Even if the employee can meet the first two requirements for ADA coverage, said employee must still be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations in order to gain ADA protection. Stress, to some degree, is inherent in almost every job. Coping with pressure and deadlines, getting along with difficult customers and co-workers, regularly appearing for work on time, accepting criticism, and managing others may also be essential functions of the job. Courts repeatedly have held that employees must be able to cope with the stresses inherent in a job in order to fall within the ADA's protection.

    For example, in Johnston v. Morrison, Inc., 849 F.Supp. 777 (N.D. Ala. 1994), a waitress was determined to be unable to perform the essential functions of her job when the stress of serving customers during peak hours caused her to "melt down" and be unable to perform her duties. Similarly, in Larkins v. CIBA Vision Corp., 858 F.Sup. 1572 (N.D. Ga. 1994), a customer service representative whose panic attacks prevented her from answering telephone calls was held to be unable to perform the essential function of her job.

    The ability to follow supervisory direction and get along with co-workers have also been recognized as essential functions of the job. Mancini v. General Electric Co., 820 F.Supp. 141 (D. Vt. 1993) (employee's claim under the ADA for refusing a work assignment rejected since the ability to follow the orders of a supervisor is an essential function of the job); Misek-Falkoff v. IBM Corp., 854 F.Supp. 215 (S.D. N.Y. 1994), aff'd 60 F.3d 811 (2d Cir. 1995) (employee's claim rejected since his emotional outbursts demonstrated an inability to get along with co-workers and supervisors, an essential function of his job.