Dealing with Workers' Panic Attacks

A Los Angeles jury awarded $21.7 million to a worker who claimed she was fired because of her panic attacks. Experts say organizations will need to accommodate a growing number of employees with anxiety disorders or else risk a similar verdict.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013
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A whopping $21.7 million-dollar jury verdict in a wrongful termination suit against a Southern California waste-hauling firm last month is raising new concerns about how employers deal with workers who suffer from panic attacks, anxiety disorder or related psychological issues.

April Rodriguez, a 34-year-old mother of four, was awarded $5.2 million in compensatory damages and an additional $16.5 million in punitive damages from the trash company Valley Services of Industry, Calif., which had fired her in January 2011. Lawyers in the case say they believe it's the costliest verdict on behalf of an employee in Los Angeles County history.

Rodriguez had told a Los Angeles jury that her supervisors were skeptical at first when she told them she was suffering from panic attacks; failed to grant her sufficient leave time or make other accommodations, and said that her condition was the reason she was ultimately dismissed. The woman also testified that she was mistreated on the job by her supervisors there.

Even Rodriguez' attorneys say they were "shocked" by the size of the verdict, but they contend the former office worker provided compelling medical evidence and testimony that she suffered from debilitating panic attacks which were fairly frequent and had required hospitalization. "The way she described it is she thought she was going to die," says Josh Brown, a legal assistant in the Santa Monica firm of Shegerian & Associates, which represented Rodriguez.  

Brown says Rodriguez was harassed by her bosses and that then they would not take her phone calls about returning to work after a disability leave. He says the supervisor who ignored her calls also called her names, and "said we need somebody here to work," he says. "Her cubicle was shuffled around with great frequency and she was the only one treated in that manner."

Attorneys for Valley Vista say they plan to appeal the verdict, which may exceed the total value of the company, which hauls garbage in Industry and nearby communities. Steven Joffe, of the Los Angeles firm of Wilson Elser, which represented the firm, says he believes the case -- not to mention the size of the verdict -- is not typical. He says he blames a variety of factors, including a judge he calls "extremely pro-plaintiff" and his decision to allow testimony by two other ex-employees claiming racial bigotry by the owners, which he says inflamed a largely Hispanic jury.

"This lady, April Rodriguez, was not terminated because she had a mental disability," Joffe says. Instead, he insists, she was terminated after she failed to come back to work at the end of a disability leave and did not call to explain where she was. The defense attorney says she failed to return messages left by the human resource manager and even ignored entreaties from her now ex-husband, who also works for Valley Vista.

California tends to be more protective of disabilities than both federal law and other states, says Anthony Oncidi, a management-law partner in the Los Angeles office of Proskauer's California labor and employment law group.

He says such a large verdict might be unlikely in other jurisdictions -- especially because there is no California limit on punitive damages. But he does believe the case is a cautionary tale for companies on how to handle panic disorders.

"I think what it does is to further emphasize the need for employers to have a very solid reason for a termination," Oncidi says. "Especially when there's an allegation by an employee that they have disability, employers need to tread, very, very carefully. Under California law, it's very easy to establish a disability." He advises employers to exhaust every possible option to accommodate an employee with an issue such as panic attacks.

Betsy Johnson, managing shareholder of the Los Angeles office of Ogletree Deakins, says the verdict "definitely has the wow factor attached to it" but adds that there's also a very strong likelihood the size of the jury award will be reduced on appeal, which may take a couple of years.

She says the verdict will not change the advice she gives her clients on worker-disability issues. "I always tell them you have to look at these on case-by-case basis, and make your decisions on the circumstances."

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The verdict comes amid increasing awareness of the wide extent of anxiety disorders among the U.S. workforce. The Anxiety Disorders Association of America in Silver Spring, Md., reports that a range of conditions, including panic disorder, post-traumatic stress and phobias, affect as many as 19 million adults and children, accounting for about one-third of the $148 billion that the nation spends annually on mental health.

Ron Honberg, the national director of policy and legal affairs for Arlington, Va.-based National Alliance on Mental Illness, says there's an obligation for the worker to inform his or her employer up front about the condition and to provide full documentation. If the employee does that, he notes, the company should handle the worker's disability just as it would heart disease or diabetes.

"The thing as an employer you can't do or shouldn't do is a knee-jerk reaction -- 'Well, I don't believe this person has panic disorder, despite a note from a doctor,' " Honberg says.

Denise Heybrock, behavioral health and wellness specialty consultant for Aon Hewitt in Lincolnshire, Ill., says employers should let workers know about employee-assistance programs or other counseling options. They should also ensure that a private room is available in case the worker has a panic attack while on the job.

"If there's undue stress in the work environment," Heybrock says, "the manager can pay attention to the employee's workload. Stress brings on anxiety -- [so] talk to them about it, about work/life balance."

Employers are beginning to come to terms with the fact that, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they need to make the same kinds of accommodations for workers with mental-health issues as with physical disabilities, says Mary Tavarozzi, a senior consultant with Towers Watson in Tampa, Fla. She says employers with workers who deal directly with the public attacks -- such as tour guides -- may find that to be more difficult, depending on the duties of the person who experiences panic.

"What [employers] have to do is the same thing for people who are bi-polar and have episodes of mania followed by depression, or have ADHD, or, in this case, anxiety attacks," Tavarozzi says.

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