Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.
All employers should care about their employees’ mental health – but when does this concern put an employer in territory that may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? In López-López v. The Robinson School, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that an employer’s driving an employee to a psychiatric facility and obtaining a court order to have her involuntarily evaluated, was not discrimination or retaliation under the ADA.
The plaintiff worked at the employer school as a sixth grade teacher for students with mild learning disabilities. When the plaintiff’s supervisor visited her classroom and witnessed students getting “rowdy” during a test, looking at each other’s test papers, and walking around the classroom, plaintiff’s supervisor saw the plaintiff hit her hands on the desk, which scared the students and made some cry. Concerned about the plaintiff’s aggressive response – and after receiving emails from concerned parents – school administration determined a meeting was necessary.
The next day, the plaintiff met with her supervisor and two other members of school administration. They informed her that she was being suspended pending an investigation into her behavior during the test. The plaintiff then suffered a “temporary nervous breakdown,” fell to the floor crying, and said “I want to kill myself.” After attempts to reach the plaintiff’s emergency contacts failed, the school’s psychologist recommended that the plaintiff be brought to a mental health facility for an evaluation.
School officials drove the plaintiff to a psychiatric hospital that afternoon. When the plaintiff refused to admit herself and tried to leave, one of the school administrators signed an “Informed Consent for Psycho-Active Medication” form, and thereafter obtained a court order to involuntarily admit the plaintiff to the psychiatric hospital. The plaintiff was evaluated and released from the facility two days later. After receiving treatment through an outpatient program, she was certified to return to work. Before returning to work, the plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination alleging disability discrimination.
The same day that the plaintiff went back to work, the school placed her on a Teacher Improvement Plan (TIP). The school issued the plaintiff two additional TIPs, noting her continued need for performance improvement.
Discrimination and Retaliation Lawsuit
The plaintiff filed suit, alleging that the school discriminated against her in violation of the ADA when it (1) determined that she needed a mental health examination on the day of her self-characterized “breakdown,” and (2) conditioned her continued employment on her receiving mental health treatment.
The First Circuit held that requiring the plaintiff to receive medical treatment was a “business necessity” – particularly because the plaintiff herself characterized her condition as a nervous breakdown and acknowledged she had made statements indicating that she intended to harm herself. Further, the court agreed with the steps the school took to involuntarily admit the plaintiff to the mental health facility. The court found that, while mental health evaluations cannot be used to harass employees or to fish for non-work-related issues, the school’s concerns were reasonable, well-documented, and supported by the recommendations of mental health professionals. In sum, the school had a legitimate basis to conclude that the plaintiff was unable to teach young children in her condition, and acted reasonably when it determined that the plaintiff needed treatment to be fit to teach. The plaintiff also did not provide any evidence that the school’s proffered reasons for requiring mental health treatment before returning were pretextual.
The court then turned to the plaintiff’s ADA retaliation claims, which it found equally unconvincing. The plaintiff alleged that the school issued her TIPs in retaliation for filing the charge of discrimination. Further, the plaintiff alleged that the school impermissibly “papered” her personnel file by including documentation about the test incident. The court found that none of these alleged actions constituted a materially adverse employment action, and instead, were routine evaluations that were to be expected. Additionally, the court determined that the inclusion of the documents about the test incident in the plaintiff’s personnel file had not caused her any “material harm.” Accordingly, the court held that the lower court properly granted summary judgment in the school’s favor.1
While this case certainly presented some extreme circumstances – and the First Circuit was careful to caution that mental health evaluations may not be used for improper purposes – it demonstrates that employers may take steps to ensure that employees are mentally fit to perform work, so long as there is a legitimate business necessity for doing so.
1 The plaintiff also alleged that the school discriminated against her on the basis of age (61) when it denied her access to training outside of Puerto Rico, and required her to manually post grades and turn in her lesson plans during her class. The court affirmed the dismissal of these claims as well.