A judge is about to rule whether the Florida Dental Association’s insurance subsidiary (FDAS) wrongfully fired a fifteen-year employee because it feared her mental heath condition made her a workplace threat.
The association describes itself as the statewide professional membership organization representing Florida-licensed dentists.
Jim Garrity represents the former employee and argued on her behalf at the September 4, 2019 court hearing. A Miami-based lawyer presented FDAS’ side. The judge said he would issue a ruling in the next few weeks on whether the case will proceed to trial.
Garrity sued FDAS and alleged that it violated his client’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Specifically, he alleged that after FDAS learned of her diagnosis, it set an impossibly short deadline for her to “fix” her problem. It was unreasonable because there was no way she could get help so quickly. Some psychiatrists she called weren’t even taking new patients. Those that were did not have openings for weeks or months. After she reported that she hadn’t been able to make an appointment yet, FDAS fired her.
Total time from the day it confronted her to the day she was fired: 19 days.
What FDAS should have done, Garrity said, is allow her more time to get treatment. The ADA is clear that, absent proof of an undue hardship, employers must allow employees unpaid medical leave as an accommodation, if the leave will allow the employee to address the medical issue and return to work. Many employees (and employers, unfortunately) do not realize that while the FMLA allows up to 12 weeks of medical leave, the ADA may require additional unpaid leave on top of that.
At the hearing, Garrity argued that FDAS’ actions showed that its management used unfounded stereotypes about mental illnesses, and wrongly painted her as a threat. In fact, Garrity told the judge, an FDAS-paid psychiatrist issued a report repeatedly saying she’d never made threats, never took steps to harm herself, never even hinted at violence of any kind, and presented as truthful, sharp and respectful. Garrity told the court:
Before an employer can label a worker a “direct threat” and run them out the door, it must conduct an individualized assessment of a worker’s mental health, based on objective medical histories and evidence. It cannot rely on fears that some people with the condition sometimes do one thing or another. The analysis must be based on the specific employee in question, not on newspaper headlines. Otherwise absolutely no one suffering from a mental health condition could remain employed, including those with bipolar disorders, depression, anxiety – you name it. This case shows why Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The judge is expected to rule on the case this month.
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