A Limit to Special Treatment

A divided Massachusetts Supreme Court has held that disabled employees can be fired for misconduct regardless of whether it results from their disability. Mammone v. Harvard College involved a bi-polar receptionist for a Harvard museum, who was disciplined for misconduct that occurred while in a manic state. He handed out flyers attacking his employer’s wages and spent time on his personal computer rather than working, ignoring pleas from his supervisor to perform his assigned duties.

The court held that state handicap discrimination statutes only protect qualified handicapped people, and that a “disabled individual cannot be a qualified handicapped person ‘if he commits misconduct which would disqualify an individual who did not fall under the protection of the statute.’”

In dissent, Justice Greaney argued that employers should have to put up with “occasional displays of inappropriate, and sometimes bizarre, workplace behavior” resulting from an employee’s disability and give such employees a “measure of special treatment.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to address this issue. The Americans with Disabilities Act distinguishes between alcoholics, whom it expressly recognizes can be disciplined for disability-related misconduct, and other disabilities, about which it is silent on the question of disability-related misconduct.

The Massachusetts courts are usually more pro-plaintiff than the federal courts. For example, they have rejected the U.S. Supreme Court’s conclusion that a correctable condition is not a protected disability.

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