Seventh Circuit ruling brings clarity for employers dealing with potential employee mental health issues

By John Breslin | Feb 20, 2018

CHICAGO — Dealing with an employee exhibiting mental health problems remains a thorny issue despite a federal appeals court's recent ruling denying a disability discrimination claim against an Illinois state agency.

But the Seventh Circuit decision does help to clarify the law around this issue, if only because of the wealth of factual detail that was aired as the case made its way through the courts, said Jessica Rothenberg, an associate at Pepper Hamilton's New York law office, who specializes in labor and employment cases.

"I think it is definitely up in the air, a grey area, but this case does state that an employer can act if there is a reasonable belief that it impairs the employee's ability to do the job or are posing a safety threat," Rothenberg told the Cook County Record.

But the problem for the employer is to work out when it applies, and to deal with what is going to be a deeply sensitive situation, she said.

It is further complicated because there are workplaces where an employer can and should act sooner, such as in law enforcement and other emergency services, Rothenberg said.

The Seventh Circuit recently upheld a lower court’s rejection of a disability discrimination claim involving a employer that had the plaintiff take several mental health exams due to her behavior.

In Painter v. Illinois Department of Transportation, the Illinois Department of Transportation allegedly placed the plaintiff on leave and had her undergo a exam after she allegedly made outbursts that were directed at her coworkers and talked to herself as she moved about the office.

"She was yelling and walking around and talking to herself," Rothenberg said, who was not directly involved with the case, but followed it closely. "Her coworkers were worried about being around her and for their safety."

After leaving the government agency and gaining employment elsewhere, the ex-IDOT employee sued for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

This decision helps at least to make it somewhat clearer for managers and business owners when dealing with an employee who may be displaying possible mental health problems, Rothenberg said.

The ADA prohibits employers from compelling employees to take medical exams unless their behavior is “shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.”

Rothenberg said that if an employer came to her asking for advice, she would advise caution and tell them to gather as many as facts as possible before taking any action.

The attorney noted that a number of doctors said the plaintiff in this case was fine to work. When it comes to dealing with an employee with mental health issues, it cannot be managed as a disciplinary matter, Rothenberg said.

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Illinois Department of Transportation Pepper Hamilton LLP U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

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