Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Mass. SJC: Employer Need Not Accommodate Disability-Created Workplace Misconduct

In a decision late last week in Mammone v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state antidiscrimination law does not require an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee whose disability causes "egregious workplace misconduct." The majority stated: "An employee who has committed egregious workplace misconduct (conduct so inimical to an employer's interest that any employee would be fired for the same acts) has precluded himself from 'performing the essential functions of the position,' with or without a reasonable accommodation." Based on that legal ruling, the court affirmed summary judgment for the employer in a case brought by a worker dismissed for a manic episode caused by bipolar disorder.

Justice Greaney, in a lone dissent, agreed with the majority's legal rule but believed the evidence to raise a jury question regarding whether the plaintiff's workplace misconduct met the standard for "egregious." He concluded:

Mental illness makes life more difficult in almost every way imaginable. As a practical reality, if employees who suffer from bipolar disorder are to hold jobs at all, some measure of special treatment from employers may, from time to time, be necessary. The court's affirmation of Harvard's right to summarily terminate the plaintiff, on the basis of one manic episode and with no attempt to accommodate his illness, is regrettable. This conclusion undermines a fundamental purpose of G.L. c. 151B, to preserve the employment status of the handicapped, including the mentally ill. See Dahill v. Police Dep't of Boston, 434 Mass. 233, 240-241 (2001). We have held that, for purposes of the analogous Federal statute, § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794, an individualized inquiry into whether a plaintiff is a qualified handicapped person is "essential if [the statute] is to achieve its goal of protecting handicapped individuals from deprivations based on prejudice, stereotypes, or unfounded fear, while giving appropriate weight to such legitimate concerns of [employers] as avoiding exposing others to significant health and safety risks." Cox v. New England Tel. & Tel. Co., 414 Mass. 375, 383-384 (1993), quoting School Bd. of Nassau County v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273, 287 (1987). Given its remedial purpose, G.L. c. 151B likewise requires a reviewing court carefully to "measure whether the employer's decision 'reflect [s] a well-informed judgment grounded in a careful and open-minded weighing of the risks and alternatives.' " Cargill v. Harvard Univ., 60 Mass.App.Ct. 585, 603 (2004), quoting Hall v. United States Postal Serv., 857 F.2d 1073, 1079 (6th Cir.1988). No such weighing was conducted by Harvard in this case. The court's decision will make life even more difficult for those attempting to hold down a job while suffering with a mental illness, thereby undermining the compassion our society has expressed, through the Legislature's enactment of G.L. c. 151B, for someone in the plaintiff's circumstances.
For press coverage of the case, see this article.


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