Is it Discrimination to Accept the Resignation of an Employee Suffering from Depression?

A recent case illustrates how important it is for employers to engage in an interactive process with employees who suffer from so-called “hidden” disabilities, such as depression or other mental health ailments. In Smith v. State, 07-1689 (Iowa App. 10-29-2008), the employee began a medical leave after being diagnosed with depression. When she returned to work, still in a state of depression, she resigned. Her supervisor saw that she was upset, but accepted her resignation nonetheless. A few days later, however, the employee asked to withdraw her resignation. Her employer refused, and her subsequent applications for different jobs within the State were denied.

Ms. Smith filed a lawsuit contending, in part, that her employer failed to accommodate her disability of depression. She argued that her employer knew that she was suffering from depression when she submitted her resignation, and should have allowed her to rescind it. The employer argued that Ms. Smith never explicitly asked for any accommodation, and therefore did not need to engage in any discussion with Ms. Smith or her doctors about why she had suddenly quit.

The Court sided with the employee, stating that the absence of an explicit request for accommodation or help was not fatal to her claim. Said the Court: “[P]roperly participating in the interactive process means that an employer cannot expect an employee to read its mind and know that he or she must specifically say ‘I want a reasonable accommodation,’ particularly when the employee has a mental illness. The employer has to meet the employee half-way, and if it appears that the employee may need an accommodation but doesn’t know how to ask for it, the employer should do what it can to help.”

This case is important to New Jersey’s professionals and executives who may suffer from depression or other mental health disabilities. While it is usually wise to expressly request accommodations for your disabilities, preferably in writing, this case stands for the principle that employers have a duty to inquire and explore whether you are “in your right mind” if you are obviously upset and decide to leave your job.