The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued food retailer King Soopers Inc. for firing a worker who is bipolar, alleging that the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Employment discrimination suits involving mental illnesses are relatively rare and by no means easy to win, but the EEOC earlier this year scored a major victory in one of the first cases involving bipolar disorder to go to trial.
The EEOC hailed the suit against Cottonwood Financial Ltd. in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington as a breakthrough, and regional agency attorney William Tamayo in a news release warned that, "Employers acting on outdated myths and fears about disabilities need to know that the EEOC will not shy away from taking ADA cases to trial to bring them into the 21st century."
It seems the agency is making good on the threat. On September 18, the EEOC announced the suit in Denver federal court against Dillon Companies, which does business in Colorado as King Soopers.
The EEOC alleged that the company refused to accommodate and unlawfully fired Kelly Ferris, a receptionist at its headquarters, because of her bipolar condition.
Ferris was hired in 2003 and worked for five years before she took medical leave, explaining that she needed the time to manage a flare-up in her disability. While the company had a medical leave policy of 18 months, Ferris was allegedly fired after five months for failing to report to work.
"Bipolar disorder and other psychiatric conditions have long been misunderstood in society," said EEOC Phoenix Regional Attorney Mary Jo O'Neill in a news release. "Employees who have bipolar disorder are frequently subject to unfair stereotypes about their ability to work. That's why the EEOC filed this lawsuit."
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder affects about 5.7 million adult Americans in a given year. It's one of the top 10 leading causes of disabilities.
The suit is not King Soopers first run-in with the EEOC. In December 2011, the supermarket chain agreed to pay $80,000 for discriminating against a mentally challenged worker, who was allegedly taunted and bullied by co-workers and eventually fired.
Aspart of the settlement, King Soopers agreed to "provide training to all of its supervisors and managers about the ADA and how to properly interact with employees with special needs," according to the EEOC.