The federal government is suing a North Carolina employer for what it calls a pervasive problem in the workplace: discrimination against employees with mental illness.

In the federal suit filed Sept. 21 in the Eastern District of North Carolina, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission contends that the Smith International Truck Center relied upon “myths, fears and stereotypes about mental impairments” when it unlawfully terminated an employee who took leave for a mental health issue.

According to the suit, the employee, Stephen Kerns, took one week off from work to obtain medical treatment and get his dosage adjusted for medicine he took for what the complaint calls a mental impairment. The man then returned to work with no restrictions, but was fired shortly thereafter, according to the EEOC.

The agency asserts that his employer fired Kerns because of his perceived disability — in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. “The employer just assumed, acting on stereotypes, that if he’s getting treatment for any kind of mental impairment, that he must not be able to work, and that’s the problem. They didn’t look at his abilities,” said Carol Miaskoff, assistant legal counsel to the EEOC.

Miaskoff said that discrimination against employees with mental illnesses has been an ongoing problem since the ADA was passed in 1990.

“There’s just a lot of stigma about mental illness,” she said, adding that the North Carolina case highlights the difficulties that individuals with mental illness face in landing a job and keeping one. “‘Getting employers to slow down and not jump to these negative conclusions is not easy.”

Steven Lawrence, of Fayetteville, N.C.’s Anderson Johnson Lawrence Butler, who is representing the trucking company, adamantly denied the claims.

“This is absurd,” Lawrence said of the lawsuit. “When the allegation states that Smith International perceived him as disabled, that is just out and out untrue. He was not disabled. He had not been determined to be disabled.”

According to Lawrence, the employee was fired because he repeatedly didn’t show up for work without any notice. The employee had been warned several times, Lawrence said. “It was that simple.”

Joseph Lynett, an associate in the disability leave and health management group at White Plains, N.Y.-based Jackson Lewis, said, “The EEOC seems to be focused on making sure employers are engaging in an interactive process with employees who have medical conditions.”

As for how employers treat workers with mental health issues, Lynett believes most try to do the right thing. “There are many, many people with different levels of mental impairment who are productive and actively employed,” he said.

Tresa Baldas can be contacted at tbaldas@alm.com.