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Addressing Anxiety And Depression Within Your Staff: Tips For Family Employers

A teacher at a school for special needs students in Puerto Rico sued the employer and two administrators. She alleged they violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) by taking her to a psychiatric hospital and placing her on an improvement plan.

By the teacher's own account, she suffered a "temporary nervous breakdown" in September 2015. The employer had told the teacher on multiple occasions since she started in 2005 that she needed to improve her performance in several areas. After a parent complained that the teacher had scared her child by yelling, the teacher's supervisor informed her she would be placed on a paid suspension while the school investigated the incident.

During the meeting with her supervisor, the teacher allegedly fell to the floor, started crying, and said that she wanted to kill herself. The school's clinical psychologist recommended contacting a mental health facility, which suggested bringing the teacher in for an evaluation.

According to the lawsuit, the head of the school told the teacher that he wanted to take her to a "crisis center" and that her "job depended on it." After meeting with a doctor, the teacher tried to leave the facility, which she claims she did not know was a psychiatric hospital. Hospital staff brought her back into the building and the head of the school signed an "Informed Consent for Psycho-Active Medication" form.

The head of the school and the woman's supervisor obtained a court order through Puerto Rico's Mental Health Act to keep her at the psychiatric hospital. She was treated and released on September 4, 2015. Following outpatient treatment, she was certified to return to work on September 21, 2015.

Based upon the lawsuit allegations, when she returned, the school placed her on a "Teacher Improvement Plan" because of the parental complaint and previous issues identified in her evaluations.

The district court ruled against the plaintiff in her lawsuit. The court found that she failed to show a prima facie case because she did not suffer adverse employment action. In addition, the school had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for her suspension with pay and the improvement plan, the court stated. The appellate court affirmed the district court's summary judgment against the teacher. It held that the school had reasonable basis for determining that a medical evaluation was "job-related and consistent with business necessity." Sandra Lopez-Lopez v. The Robinson School et al., Case No. 19-1386 (1st Cir, U.S. Ct. App) (May 11, 2020).

Commentary and Checklist

Employers generally focus on physical disabilities in the workplace, but mental and emotional disabilities can also create challenges for employers, including family employers. 

In May, The Washington Post reported that 34 percent of Americans now show signs of clinical anxiety or depression. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, individuals with anxiety disorders are “six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders.”

Since anxiety and depression are two of the most common chronic illnesses among American adults, odds are they affect one or more members of your staff. Federal law (15 or more employees) and state law (often applies to fewer than 15 employees) require employers to reasonably accommodate disabilities.

Family employers should follow these tips to help prevent claims of disability discrimination from staff:

·      Review existing discrimination policies with legal counsel and make sure they adhere to federal and state discrimination laws.

·      Act as though  anything but minor or temporary injuries or ailments is arguably a disability under these laws.

·      Create accurate job descriptions that consider and set out the exact criteria and abilities necessary to perform the job, including the mental, physical, and environmental requirements.

·      Provide training for managers on what to do if a staff member requires a reasonable accommodation.

·      Disability issues are best managed on a case-by-case basis.

·      Have access to experts to help determine what is a reasonable accommodation appropriate to a particular staff member.

·       Speak to an attorney before dismissing or failing to promote a staff member because of a disability.

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