NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Courts Reacting Warily To Mental Health Claims

June 22, 1997

Legal observers say judges and juries around the country have been rejecting many suits brought by workers who claim they were unlawfully dismissed because of mental health problems. Moreover, there are predictions that the new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's guidelines on mental disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act won't significantly sway federal courts -- which have the final say.

  • Many courts have rejected claims of individuals with emotional problems -- holding that they were not disabled under the law, which defines a disability as an impairment that "substantially limits" one or more "major life activities."
  • Part of the problem, reportedly, is the difficulty in clearly defining mental disabilities in general and many mental illnesses in particular.
  • Observers say the EEOC waited so long to issue its guidelines on mental disabilities that it now faces an uphill battle to reverse court precedent.
  • Agency officials are said to believe some recent cases were "incorrectly decided."

Trial courts have held that people who suffered nervous breakdowns or manic depression, for example were not legally disabled -- particularly when medication relieved their symptoms. In its new guidelines, the EEOC insists that a person is still disabled -- even if the symptoms go away with medication.

Plaintiffs' lawyers are in a difficult position. The disabilities act's discrimination provision only covers those who can still perform the "essential functions" of their jobs. But once a mentally ill plaintiff convinces a judge that he or she is truly disabled, the judge may also conclude that the person isn't qualified to work.


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