Employer Can't Fire Workers With Bipolar Disorder, Court Rules

bipolar court caseIn his time at Cottonwood Financial, Sean Reilly had overcome much. He had risen the company ranks from assistant to head store manager, and even won performance awards in spite of his bipolar disorder. Yet he claims that when he requested leave in 2007 to give him time to adjust to a new medication, he was fired.

A suit was filed on Reilly's behalf by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It alleged employment discrimination under federal disability law, and on Thursday, the District Court for Eastern Washington ordered the financial services company to pay Reilly a total of $56,500 in damages. The finding is one several over the past decade in which a plaintiff diagnosed as bipolar emerged victorious in an employment discrimination lawsuit.

"This case was never about money or any sort of payback -- it was always about doing the right thing to help protect the rights of people with disabilities," Reilly said after the verdict, according to an EEOC news release.

In saying Cottonwood violated the 1990 Americans With Disability Act, the court awarded Reilly $6,500 in back wages and another $50,000 for emotional pain and suffering. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Edward F. Shea called out Reilly's perseverance in the face of his disorder. He was a high school honors student before attending college in Portland, Ore., and he began working for Cottonwood after leaving college to address his mental disorder.

According to the World Health Organization, bipolar disorder is the sixth leading cause of disability in the world, and many employees lose their jobs as a result of it. The ruling is being hailed by the EEOC as a landmark for Americans with bipolar disorder.

"Employers acting on outdated myths and fears about disabilities need to know that the EEOC will not shy away from taking ADA cases to trial to bring them into the 21st century," said William Tamayo, the EEOC's regional attorney in San Francisco.

Fired By Note, Posted On The Door

In its report, the EEOC celebrated the ruling as one of the first for lawsuits pertaining to bipolar disorder. But it wasn't without complete precedent. Back in 2003, the District Court for Western Oklahoma rejected a motion to dismiss a wrongful termination suit filed against commercial lighting distributor Voss Electric. The Lincoln, Neb.,-company had fired one of its employees right after doctors ordered the employee to undergo a period of inpatient treatment for bipolar disorder. The company had notified the patient of the termination by taping a sign on the employee's front door, the EEOC noted. The employee received $91,250 in the agreement.

The latest advance for Americans diagnosed with bipolar comes, in the Cottonwood case, just as the patent for the extended-release version of a leading medication for the disorder was granted protection through 2017. At that point, generic competition will be allowed to enter the market, The Street reported.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article stated that Reilly filed the lawsuit by himself, without help from the EEOC. It also said the EEOC had issued a report on the matter, and not just a news release.



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Dan Fastenberg

Dan Fastenberg

Associate Editor

Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.

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