Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Emotional outbursts as ADA-protected disabilities

The term hysteria comes from the Greek word hysterika, meaning Uterus. In ancient Greece it was believed that a wandering and discontented Uterus was blamed for that dreaded female ailment of excessive emotion, hysteria. The disease's symptoms were believed to be dictated by where in the body the offending organ roamed. It was not religious belief but a social belief.


Less than two months after Jessica Mullen's hysterectomy, she applied for a position as a stitcher with athletic footwear manufacturer New Balance. Within the first few weeks of her employment, her was having difficulty mastering one of the stitching machines, which led to an abrupt and (maybe) heated exchange with her trainer, Julie Prentiss. During that exchange, Mullen became upset and began to cry. Prentiss placed Mullen in a time-out in the break room, and contacted two human resources managers, Frances Fisher and Rachel Merry.

Mullen told Merry and Fisher that she had undergone a hysterectomy, that she was having hot flashes, and that she was working with her doctor on medications because her emotions were "all over the place." In response, Merry told Mullen, "Maybe this isn't the right time for you at New Balance because what you explained about the working environment and instructions from your trainer should not have set you off as it did." Mullen further claimed that she told Merry and Fisher that all she had to do was "just wipe [her] face and go back to work," but that they insisted that she resign because they thought she started working too soon after her hysterectomy, that the job was not a good fit for her, and they did not want someone that emotional working there.

The conversation ended with Mullen's resignation, and her subsequent disability discrimination lawsuit against New Balance.

The court had little difficulty concluding that a jury decide the issue of whether New Balance shirked its responsibility to reasonably accommodate the emotional side effects of Mullen's disability:

Plaintiff has testified that she told Merry and Fisher that she had recently had a hysterectomy, that "what comes with having a hysterectomy, is early menopause," and that her doctor had told her she would have hot flashes and become emotional for years after her hysterectomy. The Plaintiff has further testified that she "kept telling the HR managers that she just needed to be able to wash her face and go back to work," and that during her conversation with human resources, "I said, if somebody would have just let me go to the bathroom and wipe my face, I would have been fine." A reasonable jury could conclude from this evidence that the Plaintiff put the Defendant on notice that she had a disability which had caused her emotional outburst, and that her statements about being allowed to "wash her face and go back to work" were an effort to open a conversation into how to accommodate that disability.

It's all too easy to dismiss Mullen's outburst as insubordination, or otherwise unprofessional or inappropriate for the workplace. It's also legally suspect. Coupled with the knowledge, however, that such outburst could have been a hormonal side effect of a medical procedure, New Balance's HR managers should have worked with Mullen to find the right accommodation to get her back to work, instead of making stereotypical judgments and forcing her resignation.

* Image by Counselling on Pixabay