Can I be Fired for Mental Health Problems?

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For Americans living with mental illness, it can be difficult to face the problems head-on due to unfair stigmas and society’s broad misunderstanding of what really constitutes a mental health “problem.” In fact, roughly 20% of all adults in America will face a mental health problem in any given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Things get even more complicated if a person is facing a mental health issue -’ whether temporary or chronic -’ and trying to juggle work and other responsibilities. Most people know there is something wrong about firing people for having disabilities, but mental health problems are a bit of a gray area for some. So, when can an employer actually terminate your employment due to a mental health issue?


Employment is Generally at-Will in Alabama

The general rule in Alabama is that all employment is at-will. This means unless you have a specific contract stating otherwise, either you and your employer can terminate the relationship at any time for any reason, with or without cause. Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule.


Federal Laws Protect Against Discrimination

Per the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), there are federal regulations in place to prohibit unlawful discrimination based on age, sex, race, and other protected classes of workers. However, when it comes to disabilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies. Under ADA rules, employers have certain responsibilities when it comes to employing individuals with disabilities.


What Constitutes a “Disability” Under ADA?

Legal definitions are not always as straightforward as we would like. In order to qualify for protection under ADA, a person must prove one of the following:

  • A physical OR mental condition that has a substantial impact on their life. It must in some way limit them. Limitations may include: walking, standing, sitting, vision, hearing, comprehension, concentration, and so forth. The key is that the limitation must impair some major activity of life.
  • Some past disability, even if temporarily in remission. This is often the case with terminal or chronic diseases, such as cancer or renal failure.
  • Physical OR mental condition that is anticipated to last for at least six months or longer. In other words, just about any condition could potentially be disabling, so long as it is not temporary or minor. This includes mental health issues like depression, bipolar personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a host of other conditions that affect millions of Americans.


What if Mental Health Impairs My Work?

Obviously, the law should not force employers to employ workers who are incapable of performing the job. Yet the law also prohibits employers from questioning applicants about their disabilities or past disabilities. The law also prohibits employers from using a person’s disability as a reason for termination. It does this by applying a balancing test.

The employer is required to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees with disabilities, but it only must do so if it will not prove unduly burdensome. Thus, the law requires employers to weigh the relative cost and effort involved in making the accommodation in relation to the benefit of keeping an employee.

Therefore, in many cases small employers will be able to terminate employees who have significant mental health problems that pose a serious problem in the workplace, especially if there are no reasonable options to accommodate the disability. Larger employers may have more options and it may be more reasonable for them to make the accommodations.


How to Know if I am Experiencing Discrimination

Because each case is necessarily unique, it is important to speak with a disability discrimination attorney near you as soon as possible to get guidance. At Five Points Law Group, we represent people who have been unfairly terminated or discriminated against based on disabilities, including mental health problems. Call or visit our firm online to learn more.

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