ADA & Disabilities

ADA: Are All Workers With Mental Illnesses Covered?

The recent spate of workplace violence has employers wondering what the ADA has to say about workers with mental illness. The answer is … it depends.

It’s been a month since the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech and a less-publicized, but equally relevant to employers, hostage situation at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. In that case, a contract employee shot and killed a NASA manager with whom he reportedly had an employment dispute. He then took his own life. A second hostage escaped unharmed.

Such incidents as these have again raised questions about mental illness in the workplace. How is it defined? What protection do mentally ill employees have against discrimination on the job? And what protection do employers have against those whose illness might result in harm to themselves and to their companies?

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Mental illness can take many forms, ranging from mild depression to severe, psychosis-driven violence. And it’s often hard to find the line between “personality disorders,” which are usually not considered disabilities to more severe conditions that are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA, however, tries to find that line.

For a mental illness to be protected under the ADA, it:

1) Must inhibit one or more of the employee’s major life activities, such as eating, sleeping, or performing tasks of personal care; and

2) Must not (with a reasonable accommodation, if needed) prevent the employee from performing the essential functions of his or her job, nor impose an undue hardship on the employer.

The challenge, of course, comes in dealing with actions caused by mental illness that fall between mild disorders and those that may threaten physical harm to the employee or to others.

This issue was recently addressed by attorney Michael R. Brown, a partner with the Boston office of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw, LLP. His thoughts were published in Insight, a publication of the Northeast Human Resources Association, and summarized on BLR’s subscription website,

Brown cited recent cases in which workers who suffered from mental illness took their employers to court for wrongful termination under the ADA.

In the first case, a financial firm employee was demoted for making unseemly comments about a co-worker. Angered by the demotion, he shouted at and threatened his supervisor, leading to a 14-week suspension. When the worker failed to submit documentation of fitness to return to work, he was let go.

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In the second case, a museum worker created a website critical of his employer, then passed flyers to co-workers and museum visitors to promote it. He was forced to go on short-term disability, then he was fired when it ended.

Both workers opposed their termination based on ADA protections. Their illnesses were the reason for their acts, they maintained. The courts, however, ruled that their conduct was egregious and that their disability offered them no special protection that nondisabled workers didn’t have. If any other worker would have been disciplined for such acts, so could they be.

What about reasonable accommodation for workers capable of such acts? Brown had a simple answer. “Behavior that puts the company or other employees at risk cannot be accommodated.”

Workplace Violence … and the ADA
Does ADA require you to keep on your payroll everyone with mental illness, including those who might become violent? Recent events make this a critical question. Get the answers in BLR’s The Complete Guide to ADA Compliance. Click here to try it at no cost for 30 days.