Bipolar employee awarded $80,000 for firing

Tribunal finds IT company assumed undue hardship without investigating his condition

An Ontario company discriminated against an employee when it fired him after finding out he had mental health issues, according to an Ontario Human Rights Commission tribunal.

Paul Lane, 50, was hired by Ottawa-based ADGA Group Consultants as a senior test analyst. ADGA was an information technology design and engineering company that had a contract with the Department of Defence (DND). Lane’s position would be part of a team developing and testing artillery software to be used by the armed forces in training and in the field.

Previous employers handled his disorder differently

In 1998, Lane was diagnosed with bipolar disorder while being treated for depression. Between 1998 and 2001, he worked for two different employers but didn’t initially tell either of his condition. One fired him after he had a manic episode resulting in him missing five weeks of work and he reached a settlement after filing a discrimination complaint. He eventually told the second employer of his condition and it paid off when his supervisors recognized the symptoms of an episode in early 2001 and he was able to get medical help before he deteriorated. He missed three weeks, but otherwise he was considered a good employee and had the potential for a leadership role. However, downsizing led to his layoff in June 2001.

ADGA not informed of his condition

When Lane joined ADGA, he again did not tell his new employer he was bipolar. He signed an employment application form that said he had only taken five days of sick leave over the past year as he was afraid ADGA wouldn’t hire him if it knew about his condition.

Lane began working at ADGA on Oct. 22, 2001, after signing a contract that allowed for a 90-day probation during which he could be terminated with or without cause with no notice. He also signed a form asking about any impairments including mental disability but didn’t put anything down.

Two days after he started work, Lane told his supervisor to watch for any inappropriate behaviour, though he didn’t mention the reason was his disorder. He said it was because of emotional abuse he’d experienced in other jobs. Two days after that, on Oct. 26, he told her everything about his bipolar disorder and that he might have to take time off work if he had a manic or depressive episode.

The supervisor was concerned as Lane’s job involved stressful situations and she was worried it could trigger an episode. She checked with the human rights commission on what ADGA’s options would be. She also gathered information on bipolar disorder from the Internet, which said stress was a main trigger of manic attacks.

The supervisor told the program manager about the situation and he was concerned Lane wouldn’t be able to handle the stress of his position. He didn’t care Lane was bipolar, just on how it would affect his job. Both were worried about his ability to work on a project that was critical to the armed forces and required high security and sometimes long hours under pressure.

Strange behaviour at work

On the morning of Oct. 30, 2001, Lane told his supervisor a man had uttered a death threat to him and a co-worker told him there was an explosion in the building. The supervisor thought this might be paranoia and he was showing some symptoms he had warned her about. Other employees reported he wasn’t doing any work and he seemed to be showing manic symptoms.

That afternoon, Lane met with his supervisor and the program manager and they told him ADGA couldn’t afford for him to take long absences. They asked why he hadn’t told ADGA of his condition when he applied and said he wouldn’t have gotten the job had they known. When he said if he was monitored for any developing symptoms it would lessen the risk, they said neither of them had regular interaction with him and were too busy to be able to constantly monitor him. Lane was told he was dismissed and he should gather his belongings and leave the building. Though he was exhibiting manic symptoms at the time, they didn’t contact his wife or doctor.

After he got home, Lane went into a full-blown manic episode that led to a period of severe depression. He was unable to seek other work and over the next few months he lost his house and his marriage broke up.

Dismissal was because of disability

The tribunal found though the program manager wasn’t concerned with Lane’s condition, just the fact of his potential affects on the project, he made his decision based on the supervisor’s information on the condition. Therefore, Lane was dismissed because of his disability and ADGA’s perception of its impact on his job performance.

The fact Lane had lied about his condition when he was hired was not a basis for termination, the tribunal said. Lane’s fear that it might affect his hiring turned out to be correct and the tribunal felt he shouldn’t be penalized for that.

“Mr. Lane was fully capable of performing the essential duties of the position to which he was hired at least when he was not heading towards or at one of the two spectrums of bipolar disorder: Deep depression or full-blown mania,” the tribunal said.

Having discriminated against Lane, the tribunal found ADGA didn’t investigate any accommodation options and therefore couldn’t claim undue hardship.

The tribunal found ADGA didn’t have any policies allowing for processes or assessments for employees with disabilities, nor did management have any training in accommodation or mental illness. It also found when Lane revealed his condition to his supervisor, he was requesting accommodation. When the supervisor checked with the commission and searched for information on the Internet, she knew ADGA needed to have some understanding of bipolar disorder before acting on its concerns.

“The procedural dimensions of the duty to accommodate required those responsible to engage in a fuller exploration of the nature of bipolar disorder, Mr. Lane’s own situation as a victim of bipolar disorder and to form a better informed prognosis of the likely impact of his condition in the workplace,” the tribunal said. “ADGA did not conduct an appropriate assessment of the situation to enable them to reach an informed conclusion that they could not accommodate Mr. Lane’s disability without undue hardship.”

Lane did his part for accommodation by telling ADGA about his condition and suggesting what the company could do in case of an episode, the tribunal found. It said ADGA should have taken some time to evaluate whether it could accommodate him after he was sent home. However, he was dismissed immediately.

The tribunal awarded Lane $35,000 in general damages and $10,000 for mental anguish. It also ruled ADGA was responsible for his salary for 33 weeks following his dismissal because of its affects on him and his resulting inability to work, which equaled $34,278.75, bringing the total damages to $79,278.75.

For more information see:

Lane v. ADGA Group Consultants Inc., 2007 HRTO 34 (Ont. Human Rights Trib.).

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