A federal jury in Massachusetts recently sent a tough message to employers about what not to do when an employee discloses a mental health disability.
The employer, PPD Development, a pharmaceutical company headquartered outside of Boston, hired Dr. Lisa Menninger in 2015 as a highly compensated director of its Kentucky-based laboratory services.
Menninger initially received highly positive reviews, but about a year into her tenure she started working remotely from the East Coast due to family circumstances.
About a year after that, Menninger’s supervisor told her that her role would soon become more visible, with more client visits, social interactions and presentations intended to boost the bottom line.
Menninger, who had previously told her supervisor she was overwhelmed, claims this prospect triggered increased anxiety that resulted in physical distress.
In early 2018, Menninger made what she described as the “difficult decision” to disclose to her employer that she suffered from generalized anxiety disorder that included social anxiety disorder and panic attacks.
A back-and-forth ensued between Menninger and the employer about potential accommodations like pre-recording some of her presentations and having a surrogate perform some of her more interactive duties while she made herself available to respond to questions.
The company agreed to two of her requested accommodations but denied the other three, deeming those functions “central” to her role.
Two weeks later, a human resources official brought up the possibility of Menninger taking an exit package or transitioning to a consultant role.
Menninger said she wasn’t interested in these options and requested additional detail regarding the rejected accommodations.
When the company responded that her requests were unreasonable, Menninger suggested they “table” the discussion until a task arose that impacted her disability.
She ultimately reported to HR that she felt her supervisor was starting to target her over her disability, though the employer concluded otherwise.
Menninger subsequently told the company that her doctor advised her to take immediate medical leave. After spending the next several months on leave, she was terminated.
She filed a disability bias claim in federal court alleging failure to reasonably accommodate a disability, wrongful termination and retaliation.
Following a trial, a jury found in her favor, handing down an 8-figure damages award.
A significant portion of the award was for “punitive” damages meant to punish the employer for its behavior.
This case provides an important lesson to employers that they must tread carefully when confronted with an employee’s mental disability, educate themselves about the disability and comply with the law.
It also highlights the importance of having a good employment attorney to advise you in these instances.