Land Air Reaches Settlement in Mental Health ADA Case

June 23, 2003 ( - The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has reached a settlement in a case of alleged unlawful dismissal due to mental illness in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

>Land Air Express of New England, Inc. agreed to a settlement of $360,000 to the plaintiff and a Consent Decree with the EEOC enjoining it from violating the ADA.   Additionally, the company committed to distributing a policy on the accommodation of individuals with disabilities to all employees, to include this policy in the company’s employee handbook and to provide its managers with four hours of training on the ADA’s requirements, according to a Commerce Clearing House report.

The plaintiff, Donna Malone, had claimed she was unlawfully fired due to excessive absenteeism after being hospitalized for treatment of severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder .   Malone filled a grievance with the Maine Human Rights Commission against Land Air claiming violations of the ADA, the Maine Human Rights Act and various other employment laws. The EEOC, which works with the Human Rights Commission in resolving claims, found grounds to believe she had been discriminated against on the basis of her disability and filed suit on her behalf in US District Court. She joined this suit, which ultimately was settled before trial.

Background Information

>Malone had been a terminal manager for the company and was appointed acting terminal manager for the Scarborough, Maine facility in the fall of 1998 when the terminal manager in that location resigned. In the early spring of 1999, she was promoted from acting terminal manager to terminal manager, but after only a few weeks, she was demoted without explanation for the change. 

>Following her demotion, Malone needed the support of an in-patient hospitalization program to assist her in regaining control of her ongoing mental health issues. With the advice and encouragement of her health care providers, she entered a specialized program in late April 1999. She was hospitalized for three weeks from late April through early May 1999 and then returned to work for Land Air. 

The company transferred Malone upon her return to the facility in Pittsfield, Maine, more than 100 miles from her prior position in Scarborough. She was assigned to the position of operations manager reporting to the terminal manager of the Pittsfield facility. Despite the change in location and supervision, she did well in this position, according to the report.

>However, in July 1999, Malone experienced a series of emotional setbacks that led to her re-entering the hospital. Prior to her admission into the hospital, she spoke with the terminal manager and received his assurance that her job was secure and that she should focus on taking care of herself.

>Three days into her hospitalization, Malone was terminated based on concerns of possible violence.   Following her dismissal, Malone spoke with, and tried to convince, the senior-level manager who terminated her to rescind his decision to no avail.   Her manager refused to reverse the decision based on a “gut” feeling that she “might go postal.”

>She had no history of violence, nor had any of her physicians suggested that she posed a risk to anyone, the report said.   In fact, she had been cleared to return to work without limitations by her physicians by the time the decision to terminate her was made. Additionally, the termination violated the company’s internal medical leave policy set forth in its company handbook.

EEOC Guidance

>With this case, the EEOC has offered seven tips for employers to follow when dealing with employees with mental illness.

  1. Become familiar with the requirements of the ADA, including the need for reasonable accommodation and the “interactive process” used to develop reasonable accommodations without undue hardship.
  2. Draft cogent and reasonable company policies and review these policies whenever dealing with an employee who may be a qualified individual with a disability.
  3. Encourage an open dialogue with the employee seeking accommodation or leave to better enable that employee to communicate his or her needs to you, as well as to better communicate the company’s business-based limitations in the accommodation process to the employee.
  4. Stay informed of the status of the condition prompting the need for accommodation or leave.
  5. With established policies in place, treat all employees compassionately, but fairly based on the established policies.
  6. Suspend making decisions based on assumptions about a condition or disability.
  7. Consult an expert whenever you have questions as to the best and most lawful course of action.

The case is No. CV-02-36-B-S.