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ADA: ‘Toxic’ work site (plus toxic boss) doesn’t necessarily create disability

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in Dealing with Bosses,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources,Office Management

It happens. Some working relationships between bosses and their direct reports are so toxic that employees suffer psychological problems.

Sometimes the tension is so bad that employees believe they’re disabled and therefore entitled to transfer to another job under another supervisor. That isn’t the case. Although a psychological problem may be real enough, unless it affects some other area of life besides work, chances are the employee won’t be classified as disabled.

Recent case: Beka Preston was a sixth-grade social studies teacher who developed fibromyalgia shortly after beginning work in a new school building.

When she returned from summer break the following year, her classroom was infested with mold.

Apparently sometime over the summer, the air conditioning system had leaked water, and mold had flourished in the hot Texas weather.

Preston claimed she was traumatized by the mold discovery. She said her fibromyalgia must have been caused by mold spores that had been present before the leak occurred. She said she was unable to work in the classroom even after it was cleared of mold and got a clean bill of health.

Preston also started having problems with her principal, whom she claimed was bullying her. Preston requested a transfer to another school.

But no other schools had openings, so she took leave under several different plans, including the FMLA. She finally was terminated after exhausting all time off and refusing to return.

She then sued, alleging failure to accommodate her traumatic stress disorder allegedly caused by mold and the bullying principal.

The school district argued that Preston wasn’t disabled under the ADA because her condition, if real, merely prevented her from working in one location and under one specific principal.

That, it argued, meant that Preston wasn’t substantially impaired in her ability to work. After all, Preston herself claimed she could work at any other campus and under any other supervisor.

The court tossed out the case, concluding Preston was not disabled. She could take care of herself and do everything except work on one campus under one supervisor.

For example, Preston claimed her condition made it impossible for her to sleep. Sleep is a major life activity and the inability to sleep is enough to create a disability.

But in this case, Preston underwent a sleep study at a clinic. The results showed that she did, in fact, sleep more than seven hours during the eight-hour study. That’s hardly less than most other Americans sleep on any given night.

A disability, concluded the court, cannot be site-specific—or supervisor-specific. (Preston v. Victoria Independent School District, No. 09-20, SD TX, 2010)

Final note: Preston also argued that it didn’t matter whether the mold actually caused her to develop fibromyalgia or that she was traumatized by her principal. What mattered, she contended, was that she believed these things and suffered anxiety and stress because of her beliefs. The court wasn’t swayed by that argument, refusing to buy into a disability created by irrational beliefs.

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