The ADA, or the Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibits employers from discriminating against “qualified” individuals with disabilities with regard to employment decisions. This prohibition extends to the job application process, hiring and firing practices and policies, promotions, discipline, compensation, job training and many other “terms, conditions and privileges of employment. A common issue in disability discrimination cases is whether individuals with a mental illness are considered disabled under the ADA.
The EEOC’s guidance on mental health disabilities
The EEOC recently released a publication regarding the rise of mental health-based discrimination in the workplace. In light of the fact that mental disabilities are so widespread and diverse, this type of discrimination is a very common problem. With the increased focus on employment discrimination, the number of lawsuits being filed alleging mental disability discrimination is also on the rise. In fact, the EEOC has reportedly handled more than 5,000 claims of mental health discrimination in 2016, with nearly $20 million in settlements.
What do employees need to know about discrimination?
In addition to the fact that your employer is prohibited from taking any adverse employment action against you because of your mental disability, there are also other protections for which you are entitled as an employee. Employers are not allowed to fire you, refuse to hire you, or deny you promotions or pay increases simply because of your disability. In addition, as an employee, you are entitled to keep your mental health condition private. Your employer is only allowed to ask you about your health condition in certain situations.
Case of Disability Discrimination against Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant
The EEOC brought a discrimination lawsuit against Hester Foods, Inc., the operator of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant franchise in Georgia. According to the lawsuit, an employee was terminated because of her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The claimant, Cynthia Dunson, was terminated after her employer discovered that she was taking medication for bipolar disorder.
According to the EEOC, the restaurant owner made obscene comments about the bipolar medication and forced her to flush the pills down the toilet. When Dunson informed the owner that she still intended to take the medication, as her doctor had instructed her, she was terminated.
Violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act
Forcing an employee to destroy her medication and then terminating her for having a medical condition that requires that medication is clearly a violation of the ADA. According to the director of the EEOC's Atlanta District Office, "[m]anagers and owners
cannot force employees to forego medical care or prescribed medications to keep their job.”
The regional attorney for the Atlanta District Office, also pointed out that
[w]hether an employee works for a large corporation or a local restaurant, she has a right to be protected from discriminatory actions by employers. We want employers of all sizes to understand their duties under the law and for employees to report such actions when they occur.
In this case against the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, after attempts to reach a pre-litigation settlement failed, the EEOC filed suit seeking back pay, compensatory damages, and punitive damages, as well as injunctive relief meant to prevent similar discrimination in the future.
If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.