Can an Employee Be Fired for Mental Illness?

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Most private sector employers have the right to fire an employee for any reason or for no reason, under the employment-at-will doctrine. But businesses that fire an employee because they have a mental illness may be breaking the law, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The ADA protects individuals with disabilities from unfair employment decisions, especially termination.

Mental Illness Disability

Mental illness can be a disabling condition, and when it qualifies as such, firing someone based on a mental illness violates the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The ADA prohibits discrimination against applicants and employees who have had, are regarded as having or who actually have, an impairment that limits at least one of life's major activities. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency with ADA enforcement authority, says that mental illness encompasses a number of conditions, among which are obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and depression.

Major Life Activity

Working is a major life activity; however, within the context of the ADA, an employee is impaired if his mental illness substantially limits his ability to engage in activities that enable him to perform his job duties. Major life activities that mental illness often affect includes communication with co-workers, supervisors and managers; concentrating on job tasks and responsibilities; learning and upgrading work skills; and processing information. Terminating an employee because he has an impairment that renders him incapable of such activities is unlawful.

Essential Job Functions

Employment applications typically contain the question, "Are you able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation?" Provided the applicant says "Yes" to this question, meets the job requirements, interviews well and passes the pre-employment tests, he's a viable candidate for the job. Likewise, while on the job, if the employee can perform the essential functions of his job, he cannot be fired based on him being regarded as having a mental illness. If he asks for a reasonable accommodation, the employer is required to provide it, under the ADA, instead of getting rid of the employee because he's disabled.


Typical workplace stress doesn't qualify as mental illness under the ADA. If an employer has documentation that supports termination based on poor performance, an employee's claim that the company violated the ADA will probably fail if the employee was merely stressed and not disabled.



About the Author

Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.