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Summary: Diminishing Rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act: Are People with Mental Disabilities Protected by the ADA in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits?

July 2006

I. Introduction

It is estimated that just over 26 percent of people in the United States experience a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Though common, great stigma remains associated with having a mental disorder. Yet, more than one in three military members returning from service in Iraq seeks mental health services. Focusing on employees with mental disabilities like PTSD, depression, and bipolar disorder, this brief compares employee-favored decisions in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits. States affected by decisions in these circuits include Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Discrimination claims brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) in the Fourth and Sixth Circuits have not fared as well as they have in the Fifth and Eleventh Circuit. These cases typically fail when the court does not accept the plaintiff’s claim of disability, without addressing the alleged discrimination.

II. Plaintiffs with Mental Illness in the SE ADA Region

The Fourth Circuit, in particular, has been very tough on ADA claims. Decisions from the Fourth Circuit are the least likely of all federal circuits to favor the employee claiming disability discrimination. For instance, in Rohan v. Networks Presentation, LLC, the employee had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but the court found that the employee’s claim could not succeed because her employer did not regard her as disabled.

Employees generally do not succeed in Sixth Circuit cases but this Circuit may view employees with mental health issues differently than other circuits. Proof of a diagnosed mental condition is more readily categorized as a disability. In Tubbs v. Formica Corporation and in Joostberns v. United Postal Service, Inc. the employees were diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, respectively, and the court accepted these diagnoses as proof of disabilities.

The Fifth Circuit requires more proof of mental illness. Unlike the Sixth Circuit, the court is not likely to accept a diagnosis as proof of a disability. For example, in Winters v. Pasadena Independent School District and in Curl v. United Supermarkets, Ltd., employees had been diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, respectively, but the court did not accept these diagnoses as proof of disabilities. In Tullos v. City of Nassau Bay, however, the employee had been diagnosed with PTSD, depression, impulse control disorder, and rage disorder, and the court accepted these diagnoses as proof of disability. The cases suggest that multiple diagnoses of mental illnesses may provide the minimum amount of information needed for a successful claim.

Of the four circuits examined here, the Eleventh Circuit is considered the most pro-plaintiff. For instance, in Farley v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., the court found in favor of the employee, who had been diagnosed with depression and PTSD, because he continuously endured disability-related jokes, and because he had been discharged due to his disability of the employee, who had been diagnosed with depression and PTSD, because he continuously endured disability-related jokes, and because he had been discharged due to his disability.

III. Implications and Conclusions

In sum, the Fourth and Fifth Circuits generally are the least likely to find for the employee. In cases where the employee has been diagnosed with multiple severe mental health conditions and well-documented evidence of the employer’s knowledge exists, the Fifth Circuit is more likely will find for the employee. The Sixth Circuit, though tough on ADA claims generally, is more likely to examine the alleged discrimination by accepting a doctor’s diagnosis as proof of a disability. The Eleventh Circuit is the most likely to accept a medical diagnosis as proof of his disability and address the discrimination claim.

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Disclaimer

These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time.  In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.

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