Autistic Dishwasher Sues for Psychiatric Disability Discrimination, Sexual Harassment and Discharge

Chronic mental and emotional conditions can make it hard to hold down a job. Everyday activities are often much more difficult when working around a diagnosis like depression or autism. When your employer engages in psychiatric disability discrimination, it can become too much to handle. But the EEOC and private employment discrimination attorneys are here to help you stand up to psychiatric disability discrimination, sexual harassment, and wrongful discharge, just like they did for one autistic dishwasher in North Carolina.

In this blog post, I will review the Complaint in EEOC v Jax, LLC d/b/a Golden Corral, Civil Action No. 3:17-cv-00535-RJC-DCK), alleging psychiatric disability discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful discharge. I will explain how the Americans With Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protect employees from discrimination based on mental health disabilities. I will also summarize the remedies available to a disabled employee facing harassment and discrimination.

Golden Corral Restaurant Creates Hostile Work Environment for Autistic Dishwasher, EEOC Says

Sean Fernandez was a dishwasher at the Golden Corral restaurant in Matthews, North Carolina. He had a psychological disability in the form of high-functioning autism. This limited his ability to communicate and interact with others. According to the complaint filed in EEOC v Jax, LLC d/b/a Golden Corral, an assistant manager in his workplace took advantage of that disability, creating a hostile work environment. The EEOC complaint says that this male assistant manager called Fernandez a “retard” and “stupid”, swore at him, requested oral sex, threatened to sexually assault him, and made repeated unwanted physical contact. Fernandez filed a complaint with Golden Corral and asked to be assigned a different shift, with a different manager. When he was again assigned to the same assistant manager, who again sexually harassed him, Fernandez was allegedly forced to leave his job.

The Golden Corral complaint raises concerns over psychological disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), sexual harassment under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, and wrongful discharge.

Psychological Disability Discrimination and the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects workers from discrimination based on their disabilities. It also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to allow disabled workers to complete their assigned tasks. The ADA applies to psychiatric disabilities resulting from mental illness as well as physical limitations. According to the ADA National Network, 44 million adults report having a mental health condition in the past year. That is about 18% of the U.S. working population. This includes diagnoses like:

  • Anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic attacks, or generalized anxiety disorder
  • Depression
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders (ADD or ADHD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Autism-spectrum disorders

All of these psychological diagnoses can qualify a person for protection under the ADA. The statute defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” In the case of autism, this could include limitations on how the person communicates with coworkers. The ADA protects employees with current disabilities, those who have a record of psychiatric disability, and even those who are perceived as having a psychiatric disability.

Workers with qualifying conditions cannot be subjected to psychiatric disability discrimination by their managers, supervisors, or coworkers. The EEOC has take the position that this includes hiring and firing decisions, as well as unfair treatment in the workplace that could create a hostile work environment, such as the use of disability-related slurs.

Sexual Harassment and Mental Illness

The EEOC says that Fernandez also faced illegal sexual harassment while working for Golden Corral. Sexual harassment and mental illness can often be linked. In some cases, severe sexual harassment can cause temporary, or even permanent, mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, which in turn can affect a person’s ability to work. In other cases, like with Fernandez, a person’s existing psychiatric disability can make him or her vulnerable to sexual harassment at work. Abusive coworkers and superiors may see the disabled person as an easy target, singling him or her out for discriminatory conduct.

Can You Quit Your Job to Escape Psychiatric Disability Discrimination?

The last part of the EEOC’s complaint against Golden Corral says that conditions on the job were so bad that Fernandez was forced to quit. The ADA and Title VII both protect against retaliation, including discharge, after a discrimination complaint is filed. They also both cover wrongful discharge or termination. But your employer doesn’t have to take the first step. If the conditions at work are bad enough that a reasonable person wouldn’t work there, you may be able to quit your job and still recover for wrongful discharge.

Under this theory, if the EEOC and Fernandez win their case, Golden Corral may have to give Fernandez his job back, and either reassign or fire the offensive assistant manager. Fernandez may also receive lost wages, both past and future (if he does not get re-hired), and other money damages for the harm caused by the psychiatric disability discrimination and sexual harassment.

Psychiatric disability discrimination can make living with mental illness even tougher. These conditions are often invisible, and many who suffer from them learn coping mechanisms and take medication that allow them to carry on at work. But when you become a target, it can put extra strain on your coping mechanisms. You shouldn’t have to put up with psychological discrimination or sexual harassment just because of your mental health condition.

If your mental illness is leaving you exposed to psychological disability discrimination at work, the disability discrimination attorneys at Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, can help. We will help you negotiate with your employer, prepare your case, and stand up for you in court. If you or a loved one is being targeted at work because of a mental illness, contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to schedule a free consultation.