• Employment Law Update: Personality conflicts among co-workers generally do not support claim of perceived mental impairment under the ADA.
  • January 25, 2005
  • Law Firm: Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, P.C. - Pittsburgh Office
  • Any employee seeking to support a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act must first establish that he or she is a "qualified individual with a disability" by showing a substantial limitation of a major life activity, or by showing that he or she is regarded by the employer as being substantially limited in such activity. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that comments by non-supervisory co-workers about an individual's mental health cannot establish that the employer regarded the individual as mentally impaired. Further, the Court held that personality conflicts among those co-workers, even when expressed through mental health terminology, genally do not establish a perceived disability. Lanman v. Johnson County, Kansas, 10th Cir., No. 03-3316, December 30, 2004.

    Susan Lanman began working in Johnson County, Kansas, as a deputy sheriff in 1987. In 2001, according to Lanman, co-workers began to treat her as if she were mentally ill, calling her "crazy" and "nuts," and making remarks about her "going off the deep end." After Lanman made a serious work-related error, she was transferred to another division, with no loss in pay or status. Immediately following the transfer, a written report was filed in which it was claimed that Lanman drove her vehicle toward a co-worker in the parking lot while making a vulgar gesture, which Lanman denied doing. Subsequently, Lanman was placed on administrative leave, pending the results of a fitness for duty exam requested by the County.

    When a physician found no signs that Lanman was unfit for duty, the County returned Lanman to employment in a new position, again with no loss of pay or benefits. When informed of the reassignment, Lanman became argumentative and yelled at fellow officers, for which she was suspended from employment. She then resigned and filed a lawsuit alleging "extreme hostile conditions" and claiming violation of the ADA. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the County.

    On appeal, the 10th Circuit upheld the dismissal. First, the Court analyzed the ADA and its legislative history, finding that the history indicated an intent to allow claims of hostile work environment under the act. The Court specifically found that the fact that the ADA precludes discrimination in regard to "terms, conditions, or privileges of employment" shows that a claim related to work environment is actionable under the ADA.

    However, as a threshold matter in any claim of a violation of the ADA, the individual plaintiff must prove that he or she is disabled or is perceived as disabled. In Lanman's case, there was no such proof. Although Lanman claimed that her co-workers often made remarks to her that included mental health terminology, she also admitted that some of the remarks were made in jest, and that officers routinely teased each other. Based on those facts, and on the fact that the County returned Lanman to work after her doctor found her to be fit for duty, the Court found that Lanman did not provide information indicating that the County believed that Lanman was substantially impaired in any major life activity, including the activity of working.

    Although the Court found in favor of the employer here, the result may have been different had the alleged remarks come from supervisory personnel. In that situation, the remarks may have supported a claim of hostile environment, and the remarks would have been imputed to the County. The decision underscores the importance of training managers and supervisors to be sensitive to language and actions, and to assure that employees are treated consistently and with respect.