Preprinted with permission from the April 19th edition of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2019 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
On April 12, 2019, in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, a jury returned a verdict that serves as a reminder to employment law practitioners of the importance of treating mental health issues with sensitivity and consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and taking a practical approach to reasonable accommodations. The jury in Schirnhofer v. Premier Comp Solutions LLC, Western District of Pennsylvania docket number 2:16-CV-00462, found that the employer, Premier Comp Solutions LLC (“Premier”), had discriminated against the Plaintiff, Ms. Schirnhofer, on the basis of her mental health disability, and in violation of the ADA. The jury awarded Ms. Schirnhofer $285,000 in damages: $35,000 in backpay, and $250,000 in non-economic damages.
This summary of the facts of the case is drawn from the Court’s opinion on Premier’s summary judgment motion, issued on March 28, 2018. Ms. Schirnhofer began her employment at Premier in 2009, and was terminated on February 5, 2014. She was employed as a billing assistant in the billing department. During the course of her employment, she had good performance reviews. Ms. Schirnhofer was diagnosed with anxiety and other mental health issues prior to her employment with Premier. Her condition was exacerbated in 2012 when her newborn grandchild died, and a co-worker with whom she was close left Premier. What followed was a series of interpersonal problems, and conflicts with and complaints about co-workers. Premier’s president and Ms. Schirnhofer’s co-workers had referred to her as “Sybil” (referencing a character in the movie Sybil who suffered from mental health issues). The human resources representative noted that she should seek “medical attention.” Ms. Schirnhofer eventually asked for a reasonable accommodation in the form of two additional ten-minute breaks. She provided a letter from her physician regarding the need for such breaks to accommodate her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and her Generalized Anxiety Disorder. On January 28, 2019 Premier denied the request, despite the advice of its human resources professional to provide the accommodation. Instead, Premier offered to move her work area. On a particularly bad day in February, 2014, Ms. Schirnhofer took to Facebook to vent her anxiety. She was terminated on February 5, 2014 for her Facebook posts in violation of Premier’s Social Media policy. Ms. Schirnhofer sued, alleging that Premier had terminated her in retaliation for her request for an accommodation, that Premier had discriminated against her in violation of the ADA, and that Premier had failed to provide a reasonable accommodation. The jury returned a verdict in her favor on the issue of discrimination, but found that Premier had not retaliated against Ms. Schirnhofer.
The lessons for employment law practitioners in this verdict are many, among them: mental health issues and accommodations are subtle, and require sensitivity; requests for reasonable accommodations provide an excellent opportunity for risk management; and, it is quite expensive to be wrong.