Diversity & Inclusion

Are coworkers out to get paranoid employee?

by J. Steven Massoni

Mental impairments are some of the most challenging disabilities to accommodate. Read on to learn about how one company managed a difficult situation with an employee who suffers from a mental health disorder and how your company should respond in similar circumstances.  Agoraohobia

Imagine this

Kenneth Tyler has worked for the company for several years. Several months ago, he claimed that coworkers had sabotaged his work, falsely accused him of stealing a computer, and threatened to burn down his house and poison him. The company investigated and was able to substantiate only that he had been wrongly accused of computer theft. The employer couldn’t substantiate any of Tyler’s other allegations.

Tyler’s doctor restricted him to the day shift and referred him to a psychiatrist for treatment of his psychological stress. Soon after, the psychiatrist diagnosed him with delusional disorder, persecutory type. The psychiatrist prescribed medication and recommended that Tyler be placed on indefinite leave. The company granted the leave.

When Tyler returned to work 11 months later, the company assigned him to a different location so he would have no contact with the employees he previously accused of threatening him. He then began to believe that his new coworkers were also threatening him and had even removed the lug nuts on his car, causing a wheel to fall off on his way home from work. He asked for a transfer back to his original work location so he could confront the employees who had accused him of computer theft and for permission to park in a reserved lot. The employer denied both requests.

Tyler refused to take the antipsychotic medication his psychiatrist prescribed, claiming it was “for people who were seeing things.” Although he disputed his diagnosis of a psychotic disorder, he sued his employer for refusing to accommodate him under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Mental illness and the ADA

Mental or psychiatric disabilities are, of course, protected by the ADA if they substantially limit one or more of the individual’s major life activities. Major life activities sometimes affected by mental impairments include sleeping, reading, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, and working.

Although the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is helpful in identifying and diagnosing mental impairments, not all conditions identified in the DSM qualify as disabilities under the ADA. The particular label applied to an illness is generally not conclusive in the determination of whether the employee is disabled.

Nonetheless, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) regulations make it clear that the following conditions will normally be considered disabilities because they substantially limit brain function and may also substantially limit other major life activities: autism spectrum disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), more than 18 percent of adults may be affected by a mental illness in a given year, and more than four percent may be affected by a serious mental illness.

The signs of mental illness often aren’t readily apparent to employers. Under current law in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals (whose rulings apply to all Kansas employers), an employer must have notice of an employee’s disability and the employee must request an accommodation before a duty to accommodate arises. That’s contrary to the EEOC’s position that an employee with a mental illness may not recognize it or know that he needs an accommodation but may still be entitled to protection under the ADA.

Further, because of the stigma that is still attached to mental illness, an employee may be reluctant to ask for an accommodation. In a worst-case scenario, the employee may deny the existence of a mental disorder and, like Tyler, really believe coworkers are out to get him.

Employer’s reaction

Employers must take several steps to sort out these difficult situations. The first step is to take the situation seriously and investigate the employee’s claims, regardless of how irrational, petty, or even outlandish they may initially seem.

For example, an employee may claim that unidentified coworkers or even outside entities are listening in on his phone calls or accessing his computer and altering his work. Or an employee may claim that coworkers are moving things around on his desk. These complaints may be signs of other workplace conflicts or anger directed at coworkers and should not be ignored.

In the 1999 cult classic Office Space, Milton torches the building after his complaints about someone taking his cherished red stapler go unheeded (and his office has been moved to a basement storage room). Although Milton’s disorder is never identified in the movie, employee complaints about stress and difficulty with coworkers are not unusual. Upon investigating, you may find that an employee is indeed messing with a coworker.

The second step is to follow the same protocol for obtaining medical certification for the employee’s mental condition from his mental healthcare provider as you would from his physician for a physical condition. Mental disabilities may require you to consult with a mental health professional to determine the effects of the illness on major life activities, the employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of his job, and possible accommodations.

Finally, you must engage in a good-faith process with the employee to determine reasonable and effective accommodations. That can be especially challenging in this situation because people are often reluctant to talk about mental illness, and like Tyler, the employee may even deny that he has an illness.

Ultimately, the court hearing Tyler’s case determined that he wasn’t entitled to any relief. First, the court noted that it’s difficult to argue that the employer should have addressed working conditions that existed only in the employee’s mind. Second, the company had taken no adverse action against Tyler. And third, Tyler frustrated the accommodation process by refusing to release his medical records or otherwise explain why he needed further accommodations.


Although these situations are always difficult, there are some things you can do to minimize your potential for liability and make the process of accommodating employees with mental disabilities as smooth as possible:

  • Don’t assume that an employee’s allegations about coworkers are the product of his imagination. Investigate the claims thoroughly to determine whether there is any evidence to support them, and document your investigation.
  • Don’t take at face value the label the employee or his mental healthcare provider assigns to the condition and assume that a particular illness amounts to a disability. Ask for medical certification from the employee’s mental healthcare provider.
  • If you can find no evidence to support the employee’s allegations and his doctor’s certification establishes a disability, move to the next stage: the interactive accommodation process.
  • Remember that you don’t necessarily have to provide the precise accommodation the employee or his doctor requests, but you must, in good faith, try to find a way to make reasonable and effective accommodations.
  • If the employee’s complaints about coworker sabotage and harassment are delusional—as they were in Tyler’s case—there may not be any reasonable accommodation that will relieve his concerns. But that shouldn’t prevent you from going through the accommodation process honestly as opposed to merely going through the motions.

Stated simply, a thoughtful, orderly approach to managing employees with psychiatric disabilities is both the best avenue to reduce your risk of liability and the commonsense thing to do.

J. Steven Massoni is an employment lawyer with Foulston Siefkin LLP, practicing in the firm’s Wichita, Kansas, office. He may be contacted at smassoni@foulston.com.

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