Last updated May 30, 2018.
Article at a Glance
- Mental illness affects millions of people in the U.S., with nearly 1 in 5 Americans suffering from anxiety and another 7% experiencing a major depressive episode each year. Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses can be categorized as disabilities under U.S. and New Jersey law, offering protection against discrimination and retaliation.
- Employers in New Jersey must allow for “reasonable accommodations” to workers with mental illnesses so they can perform the duties of their job, so long as they are not unduly burdensome or costly. However, employers are not required in New Jersey to retain an employee simply because they have a disability if he or she cannot meet their job expectations.
Mental illness strikes many people at some point in their working lives. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some 6.7% of adult Americans suffer a major depressive episode within a given year, while a staggering 18% suffer from an anxiety disorder within a given year. These conditions, if severe enough, may make productive work impossible and even require medical leave. This raises the question: What, if any, job protections exist for New Jersey employees diagnosed with mental illness?
Both the Americans With Disabilities Act and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (the “LAD”) categorize many mental disorders as “disabilities.” Thus, employees with mental disorders fall into a “protected class” and cannot be discriminated against in the workplace due to their disabled status. Since New Jersey state courts generally provide a more hospitable environment for employment discrimination claims than federal courts, let’s take a closer look at the protections extended to mentally ill workers under the LAD.
What mental illnesses qualify as a disability in New Jersey?
To qualify as “disabled” or “handicapped” under the LAD, a mentally ill employee must show that she is suffering (1) from any mental, psychological or developmental disability, (2) resulting from an anatomical, psychological, physiological or neurological condition that either (a) prevents the normal exercise of any bodily or mental functions or (b) is demonstrable, medically or psychologically, by accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques. Viscik v. Fowler Equipment Company, Inc., 173 N.J. 1 (2002).
New Jersey courts have interpreted the foregoing standard fairly broadly, recognizing many of the most common mental disorders as “disabilities,” including:
- Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Anxiety disorders
It should be noted, however, that employees claiming LAD protection for mental illness will be required to prove such illness through testimony or sworn documents from their treating physician or a medical expert.
Mental Health Discrimination in the Workplace: How can I be protected?
As stated before, the LAD prohibits employers from discriminating against workers due to their mental illness. Moreover, the LAD requires employers to provide mentally ill workers with “reasonable accommodations” that will allow such workers to perform the essential functions of their jobs. What is considered a “reasonable accommodation” is a complicated and lengthy topic, but suffice it to say, it must not be unduly burdensome or costly to the employer.
However, the LAD does NOT require an employer to retain a worker whose mental illness is preventing her from meeting the employer’s legitimate job expectations.
The case of Domurat v. Ciba Specialty Chemicals Corp., 353 N.J.Super 74 (App.Div. 2002) illustrates this quite well. In Domurat, the plaintiff was a sales representative, hired by his employer in 1978. He earned positive performance reviews for over 12 years, until approximately 1991, when he was placed on probation. His performance initially improved, then spiraled again in 1994, when he developed a drug and alcohol addiction. Among other things, his sales clients began complaining to the home office about his unresponsiveness and lack of timeliness, and his own supervisor observed that he was confused, disorganized, and erratic when it came to reporting and interfacing with clients. In 1995 (and while still struggling with his addictions), he was diagnosed with ADD. Despite being placed on a second probation, the plaintiff’s performance deteriorated further and his employer terminated him. The plaintiff then sued, arguing that his firing amounted to disability discrimination under the LAD.
The court, however, rejected plaintiff’s argument in no uncertain terms, stating: “Nothing in the LAD protects employees from termination if they are not performing the essential functions of the employer’s legitimate expectations. . . An employer may terminate a handicapped employee where the handicap in fact impedes job performance. There should be no second-guessing the employer.” (emphasis added)
Sick Leave for Mental Health
As a practical matter, this means that any employee suffering from mental illness should NOT wait until her disorder becomes so severe that it damages the quality of her work. You cannot snap at co-workers and customers, fail to meet deadlines, or otherwise perform poorly, then still expect your job to be legally protected due to your disability. Seek psychiatric help before your condition negatively impacts your work, even if this requires taking medical leave to which you are entitled.