A woman who did not disclose that she suffered from depression to the employer that fired her for excessive absenteeism cannot collect unemployment insurance benefits, or argue that her rights were violated under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a New York appeals court has ruled.
The Appellate Division, 3rd Department, let stand a finding by a state administrative law judge that Mawuli Anumah's failure to inform her employer about her mental illness constituted misconduct disqualifying her from benefits. The court also upheld two affirmations of the hearing officer's decision by the Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board.
Anumah's appeal was supported by several mental health organizations, which argued that her failure to disclose her condition was "beyond her control."
The unemployment board ruled that Anumah forfeited unemployment benefits by not taking reasonable steps to protect her position as a senior medical clerk at the Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York, even though she had been on notice for more than a year that her excessive tardiness and absenteeism were jeopardizing her job.
"Substantial evidence supports the Board's determination that by failing to mention the legitimate medical reason for her absences, claimant failed to take a reasonable step to protect her position," Justice Anthony T. Kane wrote for a unanimous panel in Anumah v. Commissioner of Labor, 503355.
By not being more forthcoming, Anumah deprived her employer of the opportunity to help her before she was discharged, the panel concluded.
"Each time the employer counseled and warned claimant about her attendance, the employer inquired if it could do anything to help; claimant did not respond or offer any explanation for her absences," Kane wrote. "The employer's witness testified that had claimant mentioned the reason for her absences, it would have referred her to a company nurse, who would keep specific medical information confidential, or the human resources department to consider accommodations such as different hours or leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act."
Anumah's rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act also were not violated, the appeals court concluded.
Her employer did not make overly intrusive inquiries about the reasons for her absences in violation of the ADA and, when warnings were given, "only a general inquiry was made to see if the employer could do anything to assist claimant in remedying her attendance problems," the court held.
The ADA permits inquiries about potentially health-related problems at work if they are related to a "business necessity" and attendance has generally been found to be an "essential function of employment," the court held.
"Thus, requiring claimant to take reasonable steps to protect her employment, by providing a reason for her absences and lateness, does not violate the ADA," Kane wrote.
Justices Thomas E. Mercure, Karen K. Peters, Bernard J. Malone Jr. and Leslie E. Stein concurred.
According to the ruling, Anumah received progressively more serious attention from her employer for her absenteeism and tardiness, including verbal warnings, written warnings and a two-day suspension in December 2005. From the time of her suspension to an absence on April 17, 2006, which resulted in her dismissal, Anumah was tardy or absent 38 times, according to the ruling.
Anumah later acknowledged that at the time she had been diagnosed with a severe depressive disorder, was seeing a psychiatrist, taking medication and attending weekly therapy sessions. During her hearing before the Department of Labor administrative law judge, Anumah said she did not share the truth about her mental condition because she was "spiraling, spiraling down."
"My mental health was not doing well at this time," she told the hearing officer. "So, I found it difficult to do a lot of things."
Anumah also feared being stigmatized about her illness, said her attorney, Carolyn E. Coffey of MFY Legal Services.
Coffey said she felt Anumah's case raises "interesting and compelling issues" about mental illness and what employees should tell employers about their health under the ADA or the unemployment insurance program.
Coffey said unemployment insurance benefits have been paid in some cases where claimants contend that alcoholism, also not disclosed to employers, was to blame for their dismissal from their jobs. In those instances, fired employees were not found to have committed disqualifying misconduct, Coffey said.
The attorney said she is uncertain whether she will seek to appeal.
Three mental health groups argued in an amici curiae before the 3rd Department that Anumah's feelings of mental paralysis are common among people in the throes of a mental health crisis.
The groups claim that Anumah was not required by terms of her employment to report her medical condition to her employer and letters submitted to the administrative law judge by her health care professionals showed her failure to reveal her medical problems were due to her illness, "and therefore beyond her control."
"Requiring an employee disclose a psychiatric disability (or any other disability not obvious to employer) would itself violate the ADA's protections against disclosure of disabilities," the groups argued.
The amici was filed by Disability Advocates, the Mental Health Association of New York and the state Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services.
Assistant state Attorney General Mary Hughes represented the Labor Department and the Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board in the case.
The Labor Department, administrators of the unemployment insurance program, did not return calls seeking comment.