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Inability to ‘get along with others’ may qualify employees as disabled

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Perk up your lawsuit radar if you (or one of your organization's managers) plan to discipline an employee who has emotional problems and difficulty relating to other people. As the following case shows, an employee's inability to interact with co-workers could, by itself, allow the employee to claim "disabled" status.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says employees can qualify as disabled if their physical or mental impairments limit one or more "major life activities." A new 2nd Circuit ruling says employees' "ability to get along with others" fits into the law's definition of major life activity.

At least one other circuit has come to a contrary conclusion, so look for the Supreme Court to eventually sort this one out.

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 long history of mental illness. After years of difficult work relationships and outbursts with co-workers, the company fired her due to the ongoing conflicts.

She sued, alleging that the company violated the ADA. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals allowed her case to 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, it said 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."

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