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When the ADA Does and Doesn't Cover Mental Illness


When the ADA Does and Doesn’t Cover Mental Illness

Employee with anxiety disorder attempted suicide at work

Is it a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to fire an employee with mental health issues if he or she suffers a breakdown in the middle of the workday?

It’s a complicated question with no clear-cut yes or no answer.

However, a recent court case provides some insight into employer’s responsibilities under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. (The Rehabilitation Act provides disability discrimination coverage to employees of companies that receive federal financial assistance; both the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act employ the same standards for determining employment discrimination.)

Let’s take a look what happened in this case, and then discuss how it might apply to other people who are dealing with mental health issues.

Breakdown at work

Eileen Felix had been employed with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) for approximately 15 years. In addition to other duties, she administered driver’s license tests for new drivers.

Felix suffered from several mental health disorders. During her time at WisDOT, she would occasionally suffer a panic attack while at work. When she felt symptoms arising, she would alert her supervisor, who would then allow her to take a break until the episode passed. Usually, Felix would retreat to a restroom to do breathing exercises to calm herself down.

However, one day in 2013, Felix suffered a panic attack that was more extreme than normal. She excused herself to the restroom. Thirty minutes later her supervisor heard muffled screams coming from the lobby.

Upon investigation, he stated that he found Felix on the floor behind a counter. She was in the fetal position, clutching her cell phone and crying out that everyone hated her and thought she was crazy, that she was going to lose her insurance, and that she wanted to die. He reported she was kicking her legs, had bloody scratches and cuts on both wrists, and that she stated, “The knives were too dull.”

Emergency personnel were called. Felix was put on leave, pending an independent medical examination to determine her fitness for duty. The regional director at WisDOT claims that he wanted to ascertain if Felix would be a safety risk to herself or others, especially since part of her job required her to be alone with minors to administer driving tests.

The doctor who completed Felix’s exam stated that it was likely that she would suffer future outbursts on the job that may include physical altercations with others. He added that he felt Felix could not safety perform her job, and that it was unclear whether she could safely perform another job at WisDOT.

Felix was notified that she would be terminated at the end of her leave period.

She met with an attorney and decided to sue WisDOT for violating her rights under the Rehabilitation Act.

WisDOT attempted to have the case thrown out. It argued that Felix was terminated not because of her disability, but rather because she posed a safety risk to herself and others.

Unfortunately for Felix, the court sided with WisDOT. Felix appealed but was unsuccessful.

(For more information, see Felix v. WisDOT.)

What employees need to know

What are the key takeaways from this case? There are several.

First, it’s important to know that coverage under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act is determined on a case-by-case basis. That means there is no set list of conditions that automatically trigger coverage.

Second, companies are not required to retain staffers who may pose safety risks to themselves or others. However, they generally must show solid evidence of the potential for harm before terminating someone, that is, companies may not fire people based on an assumption that they may pose a safety risk at some point.

Third, employees generally may not be asked to undergo medical exams unless there is a legitimate business reason for doing so.

Contact us now for a consultation

As this case shows, issues surrounding disabilities and mental health can be complicated. If you believe that your rights have been compromised, it’s a good idea to speak to an attorney.

Call or email us today to discuss your unique situation.
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