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A worker who suffers from major depression that makes her belligerent and hypersensitive to criticism has a right under the Americans with Disabilities Act to a reasonable accommodation from her supervisors, a federal judge has ruled. In his 21-page opinion in Bennett v. Unisys Corp., U.S. District Judge Franklin S. Van Antwerpen found that when a worker’s depression affects her ability to think and concentrate, she has the right under the ADA to get more feedback and guidance if it would help her perform her job. Van Antwerpen was forced to tackle the question of whether Tina Bennett’s major depression substantially limited one of her “major life activities.” Bennett’s lawyers, William T. Wilson and Stephanie A. Axarlis of Legg & Wilson in West Chester, Pa., argued that Bennett’s depression limited four activities — sleeping, thinking, concentrating and interacting with others. Van Antwerpen found that the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that thinking and concentrating are major life activities under the ADA and that many other courts and the guidelines of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission say that sleeping is also one. But courts are divided over whether interacting with others is a major life activity, Van Antwerpen found. Since the 3rd Circuit takes a broad view of what constitutes a major life activity, Van Antwerpen found the best way to address the question was to turn to the question of whether Bennett’s depression “substantially limits” her interaction with others. “Substantial limitation depends on the nature, severity, duration and permanent or long-term impact of an impairment,” Van Antwerpen wrote. In Olson v. Dubuque Community School District, the 8th Circuit found that an individual’s ability to interact with others is substantially limited only where their relations are “characterized on a regular basis by severe problems such as high levels of hostility, social withdrawal, or failure to communicate when necessary.” Other courts, Van Antwerpen said, have held that a mere difficulty in getting along or a “personality conflict” with a supervisor is not covered by the ADA. But Bennett met the test, Van Antwerpen said, since the evidence showed she was “belligerent and displayed an unprofessional attitude,” that she had “difficulty controlling her emotions” and that she was “incredibly sensitive to criticism.” Bennett’s supervisor testified that Bennett’s peers felt that they could not approach her and have a meaningful conversation with her, Van Antwerpen noted, and her poor interpersonal skills were listed as a reason she was fired. Courts, Van Antwerpen said, have held that “irritability” and “poor judgment” are not mental impairments in themselves but may be “linked” to a mental impairment. In Bennett’s case, he said, the issue must be submitted to a jury because she has “evidence linking her behavior to symptoms of her mental disability.” Bennett was hired as an engineer in 1980 by Burroughs Corp., Unisys’ predecessor, and by 1994 she was working as a program manager for Unisys. When she was promoted in 1995 to a management position, Bennett’s bosses put her on a six-month performance-review program because they were concerned about her interpersonal skills, since she was sometimes abrasive and blunt and might have difficulty selling her ideas within the company. In 1997, she was suspended due to an inappropriate and abrasive e-mail. During her suspension, Bennett visited a psychiatrist who diagnosed her as suffering from major depression. After her return to work, Bennett had numerous conflicts with her boss and others in management who said she communicated inappropriately and was unable to motivate others. In one e-mail, Bennett accused a senior manager of “conditional love” and said, “Do me a personal favor and knock it off? It makes me feel like a slave.” In February 1998, Unisys management considered putting Bennett on a “corrective action plan” but then decided it wouldn’t work and simply fired her. REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION After finding that Bennett was a “qualified individual” with a disability that truly affected her major life activities, Van Antwerpen turned to the question of whether she was entitled to a reasonable accommodation. Although Unisys fired Bennett due to her weak interpersonal skills, Van Antwerpen found that “it may be that with accommodations, Bennett could have performed the functions of her job.” Unisys’ lawyer, Anthony B. Haller of Pepper Hamilton, argued that while the company was aware of Bennett’s disability, it was never given clear notice that she needed accommodations. But Van Antwerpen found that the 3rd Circuit has set a “low barrier” for employees to trigger the ADA’s “interactive process.” At the same time, Van Antwerpen said, the 3rd Circuit has taken an “expansive view” of the employer’s obligations in the reasonable-accommodations process. Bennett’s lawyers argued that Unisys could accommodate Bennett by making her communications with her supervisor more regular, by not overburdening her and by making sure that criticism of her work was given face-to-face and followed up by positive feedback. Van Antwerpen found that Bennett had identified potential accommodations. EEOC guidelines, he said, “suggest that by adjusting the level of supervision or structure, an otherwise qualified individual with a disability can perform essential job functions.” In Bennett’s case, Van Antwerpen said, “more detailed, day-to-day guidance, feedback or structure could have allowed her to perform her job.”

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