Issue: Which mental impairments are considered "disabilities" covered by the ADA?
Risk: An employee's troubles interacting with co-workers may, by itself, allow the employee to claim disability status.
Action: Play it safe: Try to accommodate reasonable requests from "difficult" employees with emotional problems.
Warn supervisors to perk up their lawsuit radar if they plan to discipline employees who have emotional problems and difficulty relating to other people. As a new court ruling shows, an employee's inability to interact with co-workers could, by itself, allow the employee to claim "disabled" status.
The ADA says employees can qualify as disabled if their physical or mental impairments limit one or more "major life activities." A recent ruling said employees' "ability to get along with others" fits into the law's definition of a major life activity.
At least one other circuit has come to a contrary conclusion, so look for the Supreme Court to sort this one out eventually.
In the meantime, your best bet is to play it safe: If you have difficult employees with emotional problems, assume that a court would consider them ADA-protected, and do your best to reasonably accommodate their impairments. Review whether the person is "significantly impaired" in his or her ability to communicate with others and discuss the issue with outside counsel.
Key point: While you may need to accommodate such employees, you don't need to put up with disruptive or violent behavior.
Recent case: Audrey Jacques suffered from bipolar disorder and had a history of mental illness. After years of difficult work relationships and outbursts with co-workers, the company fired her due to the conflicts.
She sued, alleging that the company violated the ADA. The 2nd Circuit let her case proceed to trial. Reason: Her inability to get along with co-workers qualified for ADA protection.
The court said that simple minor troubles getting along with co-workers isn't enough to gain ADA protection. "Merely 'cantankerous' persons" won't be covered, the court said.
Instead, employees must be "substantially limited" in interacting with others. That standard is satisfied, the court said, when "the impairment severely limits the employee's ability to connect with others, i.e., to initiate contact with other people and respond to them."