The Chicago Employment Law Blog

Mental Health Center Sued for Firing Woman Over Mental Health Issues

It's like rain on your wedding day. It's like a free ride when you're already late. It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife. Wait a second, it's like none of those things. Darn it, Alanis Morissette, you've led us astray again!

What's truly ironic? Take note, Ms. Morisette, because here's a better example: The alleged conduct of the Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center (BEW Center) in Chicago, which, according to a lawsuit, fired an employee after failing to reasonably accommodate her mental health issues.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an employee of the BEW Center requested time off to seek treatment from her doctor for depression and panic attacks. The BEW Center instead required her to seek treatment from its own physicians (they are a mental health center, after all) and then terminated her, allegedly because of her disability. The EEOC has taken up her cause and filed suit.

It's common knowledge that physical disabilities must be accommodated by employers so long as the employee is able to fulfill the essential functions of her job, and that employers must give employees time off to deal with medical issues. But awareness of an employer's responsibilities regarding an employee's recurrent mental issues is not nearly as widespread.

Recent cases have reaffirmed the notion that an employer's responsibilities under the ADA are the same regarding mental health issues and physical disabilities. In one case, a teacher suffering from seasonal depression requested to change to a classroom with windows, as sunlight alleviates the effects of seasonal affective disorder. The school district refused, and the teacher eventually was forced to quit under the circumstances. The court upheld the district's liability for failing to make reasonable accommodations.

Chronic depression and panic attacks, such as the type suffered by the employee in the BEW Center lawsuit, should fall under the same law and logic. Employers, therefore, should take note and make reasonable accommodations or allow a leave of absence for employees suffering from mental health issues.

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