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Mental Disabilities Under the Americans with Disabilities Act: What Qualifies?

The number of people claiming that they have been discriminated against because of alleged mental disabilities has increased in recent years. Nearly 13 percent of all of the ADA charges filed with the EEOC between July 26, 1992 and September 20, 1996, alleged discrimination based on an emotional or psychiatric impairment. Confusion about what mental conditions are covered by the ADA prompted the EEOC to issue a guidance memorandum on March 25, 1997. See EEOC Guidance On Psychiatric Disabilities And The Americans With Disabilities Act, 1997 Daily Lab. Rep. (BNA) 59 (March 27, 1997). A discussion of mental disabilities as interpreted by the EEOC and the courts follows.

What Is A "Mental Disability?"

For the ADA to apply, there must be an initial determination of whether an individual has a "disability" within the meaning of the statute. For a mental condition to be covered, two elements must be satisfied: the condition must be:

  • a mental impairment that
  • substantially limits one or more major life activities.

"The specific issue in each case . . . is whether the plaintiff's particular disorder impairs his life in a manner which renders him disabled . . . under the [ADA]." Gaul v. AT & T, Inc., 955 F. Supp. 346, 350 (D.N.J. 1997).

In general, courts have recognized that depression, anxiety disorders and certain "[d]epressive disorders . . . fall under the category of emotional illness." Gaul v. AT & T, Inc., 955 F. Supp. 346, 350 (D.N.J. 1997) (employee diagnosed with a "depression-related illness and stress disorder" disabled under ADA). Thus, the ADA protects individuals who have psychiatric conditions that are not readily apparent. As a result, employers may have to spend more time in determining whether the ADA applies. "For example, it is generally clear whether a person is of a particular race, national origin, age or sex that is alleged to be the basis of discrimination. By contrast, it often is less clear whether a person's . . . mental condition constitutes an impairment of sufficient degree to establish that the person meets the statutory definition of an individual with a 'disability.'" EEOC: Definition of the Term "Disability," EEOC Compl. Man. (BNA) § 902.1(a) (March 15, 1995).

Personality traits (in and of themselves) are not protected. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2 (h) (Appendix). Likewise, stress or irritability, without more, are not "mental impairments." See EEOC: Definition of the Term 'Disability,' EEOC Compl. Man. (BNA) § 902.1(a) (March 15, 1995), 8 Fair Empl. Prac. Man. (BNA) 405.7258 (1995).

However, if a conflict "triggers a serious mental illness that is in turn disabling, the fact that the trigger was not itself a disabling illness is no defense." Palmer v. Circuit Court of Cook County, 117 F.3d 351, 352 (7th Cir. 1997) (in case where social service caseworker was diagnosed with major depression and delusional disorder, court noted that "[s]chizophrenia and other psychoses are frequently triggered by minor accidents or other sources of normal stress").

Clients should know that companies can enforce disciplinary rules against misconduct and apply them to disabled employees. Employees who are disruptive, menacing or violent are not protected by the ADA. A disciplinary rule may be enforced even if the misconduct is caused by a mental disorder as long as:

  • the employer prohibits such misconduct by all employees, and
  • the rule is job-related and consistent with business necessity for the position in question. EEOC: Definition of the Term "Disability," EEOC Compliance Manual § 902.2(c)(4) (March 15, 1995).

Numerous federal courts faced with the issue have held that disruptive conduct is not protected. In Schutts v. Bently Nevada Corp., 966 F. Supp. 1549 (D. Nev. 1997), the plaintiff "was fired from his job after his employer learned that he had pistol-whipped and threatened to kill another man" outside the workplace. Id. at 1556. The plaintiff filed suit under the ADA claiming that he assaulted the man because of his own depression and therefore, his termination constituted disability discrimination. Id. at 1553. The Schutts court concluded that even if the plaintiff "suffers from a qualifying ADA disability" and the defendant "knew of his disability at the time they fired him, [p]laintiff's criminal acts of violence justify [d]efendant's terminating his employment without any doubt whatsoever. The ADA . . . do[es] not protect [p]laintiff from the consequences of his violent rage." Id. at 1555. Further, the district court imposed fees and sanctions for "proceed[ing] with this action, undaunted by (and/or blissfully unaware of) Ninth Circuit authority vitiating Plaintiff's claim." Id. at 1557.

The Mental Impairment Must Substantially Limit One Or More Major Life Activities

Even if a plaintiff establishes that she has a mental impairment, she cannot qualify for ADA protection if the impairment does not substantially limit one or more of her major life activities. 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2)(A). "The inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working." 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(3)(i).

Moreover, although the effects of a mental impairment may be debilitating, plaintiffs cannot simply allege that they are disabled because they are generally unable to do stressful work. For example, in Gaul v. AT & T, Inc., 955 F. Supp. 346, 351 (D.N.J. 1997), aff'd, No. 97-5115, 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 1403 (3d Cir. Jan. 22, 1998), the court concluded that the plaintiff was "not disabled within the meaning of the ADA" even though he suffered a nervous breakdown and "ha[d] been diagnosed with depression-related illness and stress disorders for more than 10 years, including a diagnosis of depressive disorder by the director of AT & T's Medical Department." The plaintiff argued that his depression and anxiety disorders made him "unable to cope with stress or work in an unduly stressful environment," and thereby limited him in the major life activity of working. Id. at 350. The court not only concluded that the plaintiff's condition did not substantially limit his ability to work, it also held that, as a matter of law, his request for transfer to a position free from stress was an unreasonable accommodation.

Similarly, in Weiler v. Household Fin. Corp., 1995 WL 452977 (N.D. Ill. July 27, 1995), an accounting clerk suffering from anxiety and depression alleged that she was "disabled" because her impairments substantially limited her ability to work. In particular, she claimed that her supervisor caused her anxiety and depression. The court granted summary judgment to the employer, reasoning that the "ADA does not protect people from the general stresses of the workplace." Id.


The ADA will cover those applicants and employees who have mental impairments, so long as they are qualified for the job either with or without accommodations. But employers need not tolerate abusive or disruptive conduct, even where a mental disability is present. The trickiest part, of course, is determining when such a mental disability exists.

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