Employment Law Daily Depressed employee who alleged new supervisor’s actions caused suicide attempt advances ADA claims
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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Depressed employee who alleged new supervisor’s actions caused suicide attempt advances ADA claims

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

Although an 18-year employee’s depression had never affected her work until her supervisor’s actions purportedly caused her to attempt suicide, her allegations that it prevented her from working for several weeks and that she had to alter her treatment and medication due to its ongoing severity were enough to survive her employer’s motion to dismiss her ADA claim, a federal court in Illinois ruled. She also alleged sufficient facts to provide for a plausible inference her termination was discriminatory (Jenkins v. Common Place, Inc., October 19, 2018, Shadid, J.).

Diagnosed with depression in 1996, the employee began working for Common Place two years later in its youth programs. For the next 18 years, she was regularly promoted and praised by her supervisors. In November 2016, Common Place hired a new executive director who repeatedly criticized the employee and others based on their ability, education level, and qualifications.

New position. When the company created an assistant position to the executive director in December, employees were told the executive director “would create the position fulfiller’s duties” as she saw fit. Although Common Place typically considered multiple candidates for job openings, the executive director and board president appointed a nondisabled man to fill the position without going through the hiring process. According to the employee, the executive director did not want her to be working more closely with her than she already was and told the employee “I have tons of friends in the district who would come and take your jobs if I called.”

I don’t lose. At some point after the job was filled, the executive director refused to allow the employee to purchase items for the youth programs with youth programs funds. When the executive director learned the employee had contacted a board member, she purportedly told the employee “Who do you think you are going to the board behind my back! If it’s a fight you want it’s a fight you’ll get! And I don’t lose!” The employee broke down in tears, took a vacation day, and was later hospitalized for an attempted suicide, which, she claimed, was the result of the executive’s director’s harsh treatment of her.

Sign a release or else. She took several weeks off and when she tried to return, the executive director demanded that she sign a release of her medical records or face termination. Although the employee submitted a return to work clearance, she was told it was insufficient. She refused to sign a release and was fired without explanation. She subsequently sued for, among other things, disability discrimination.

Failure to promote. Moving to dismiss the employee’s failure-to-promote claim, Common Place first argued that because the employee did not know the particular duties of the job she was denied, her allegation she was qualified to fill it was not plausible. However, said the court, employers are not insulated from claims of discriminatory hiring or promotion practices by failing to provide robust job descriptions. “Holding that Plaintiff’s claim should be dismissed because her employer did not describe the position in detail would incentivize employers to provide only vague job descriptions in order to avoid discrimination lawsuits,” the court noted, refusing to do so.

Observing that the employee alleged she knew the nature of the position—assistant to the executive director—the court found it not only plausible that in her nearly 20 years of working at Common Place, she had deduced what would typically be expected of an assistant to an executive director but also that she was more than qualified for such a position. She alleged she was qualified, she was discriminated against, and Common Place elected to promote another staff member “because he was of a different race, of the opposite sex, and without a disability,” which was enough to survive dismissal on the ground that she insufficiently alleged her qualification status.

Disability. The employee also sufficiently alleged she had a disability under the ADA. Although she alleged she was diagnosed with depression in 1996, she stated that it never affected her work until 2016, when the executive director’s conduct initiated a reaction so severe she attempted suicide, was hospitalized, and took several weeks of leave pursuant to the advice of her doctor. “Although isolated bouts of depression would not constitute a disability under the ADA, and an inability to work under a specific supervisor who triggers a plaintiff’s depression may not constitute a substantial limitation to a major life activity,” the court found the employee’s complaint permitted an inference that her situation was sufficiently severe “to place her depression within the ambit of the ADA.” Her allegations that her depression prevented her from working for several weeks and that she had to alter her treatment and medication due to its ongoing severity were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

Termination. Common Place also argued that the employee failed to plausibly allege her termination was motivated by intentional discrimination. The only plausible inference permitted by her complaint, it contended, was that she was terminated out of a concern for workplace safety, given her attempted suicide, extended medical leave, and job duties in working with the youth program. Although she could not know the motive behind her termination, as that was a matter “peculiarly within the knowledge of the defendants,” she alleged she was not given a reason, the termination followed her attempt to return to work after leave related to her depression, and she believed it to be due to her disability and this, said the court, was sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

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