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Accommodations for Schizophrenia and Disability-Related Manifestations Are Not Categorically Deniable

By Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

In Beaton v. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Southern District of New York denied a motion filed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (“MTA”) to dismiss Earl Beaton’s disability discrimination claims under the American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”), including wrongful termination, failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, and retaliation claims.  Beaton had appeared to be sleeping on the job because his schizophrenia medication caused his eyes to close.  The MTA immediately suspended and then terminated his employment, despite having knowledge of his disability.  Beaton maintained that “his disability was the cause of his termination.”

Beaton was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1985.  Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves.  Although schizophrenia is not as common as other mental disorders and the symptoms can be very disabling, it can be treated with the right medications. Beaton’s symptoms included depression, anxiety, paranoia, mental instability, auditory hallucinations, and the belief that other people can read his mind.  As a result, Beaton’s schizophrenia impairs his ability to work, think, communicate, sleep, learn, focus, concentrate, and remain awake.  Beaton received psychiatric care since his diagnosis and has been successful in treating his mental condition with antipsychotic medication.  Specifically, Beaton was prescribed Fluphenazine for the past ten years, which permitted him to maintain stable periods without schizophrenia symptoms.

Beaton began working for the MTA in August 1994 as a cleaner.  In 1995, Beaton was hospitalized due to his schizophrenia and disclosed his condition to the MTA.  The MTA required Beaton to undergo a medical examination prior to returning to work, but allegedly failed to “engage in an interactive process to address accommodating Beaton’s disability.”

In July 2000, Beaton was promoted to work as a station agent.  On December 23, 2013, while working the overnight shift as a station agent at the 116th Street subway station in Manhattan, Beaton experienced severe schizophrenia symptoms and took one Fluphenazine pill at 1:00 a.m., and an additional pill three hours later at 4:00 a.m.  Beaton had never taken two pills in such a short amount of time and the high dosage made him feel extremely drowsy.  Shortly after 5:00 a.m., Beaton closed his eyes due to the Fluphenazine side effects he was experiencing.  Beaton maintains that he did not fall asleep and that he conducted a transaction with a customer at 5:00 a.m.  At approximately 5:05 a.m., Beaton’s supervisor approached Beaton and accused him of sleeping on duty.  Beaton explained to his supervisor that had not been sleeping, but was drowsy because of the Fluphenazine.  He showed his supervisor a bottle of Fluphenazine in order to demonstrate that he was indeed prescribed the medication.  Yet Beaton’s supervisor immediately suspended Beaton from his position.

On the same day Beaton was suspended, the MTA held a hearing—the first step of its disciplinary process.  During the hearing, Beaton presented a letter from his doctor, dated that same day, which verified that Beaton suffered from depression, that he had been taking Fluphenazine three times per day for the past ten years, and that a side effect of Fluphenazine is drowsiness.  Nevertheless, the MTA “proceeded to seek Beaton’s termination based on the charge that Beaton was sleeping on duty.”  The hearing officer sustained the disciplinary charge and recommended termination.  Beaton notes that, even upon hearing that his “perceived misconduct was caused by [his] actions in treating his serious medical condition, the [MTA] did not engage in an interactive process to determine if there was a reasonable accommodation that could be provided.”

On its motion to dismiss, the MTA argued that Beaton was not qualified for his job because he was caught sleeping.  The court found the argument unpersuasive, as it “confus[ed] the analytical distinction between qualification for a job and disqualification arising from a legitimate, nondiscriminatory, reason for an adverse employment decision.”  The court believed that Beaton could perform the essential functions of his job, despite the incident of misconduct, as he had worked for the MTA for close to two decades, during which time he had been successfully coping with his schizophrenia by diligently keep up with his treatment.

The court also found that it was at least plausible that Mr. Beaton’s termination was motivated by his disability, as the MTA suspended and terminated Beaton as soon as it learned his schizophrenia medication was the cause of is drowsy appearance; reaffirming that a plaintiff may bring a wrongful claim by showing he was fired due to manifestations of his disability.  For example, if a plaintiff is disciplined for being tardy and the tardiness is caused by a disability, the plaintiff may have a claim.

This case is an important reminder that even people with severe mental illnesses are protected from discrimination under the law, that an employer cannot discriminate against an employee based on manifestations of a disability, and that the analysis of whether an employee is entitled to a reasonable accommodation is an extremely fact-specific inquiry.  If your employer has discriminated against you based on your disability or perceived disability, contact The Harman Firm, LLP, for an assessment of your claims.

 

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