Preconceived notions and Mental Disablility: The Tale within a Tale

May 24th, 2006 by

The way we react to a news item often depends upon our pre-conceived notions. We all have an innate sense of what is good and just, tasteless and outrageous (although your “outrageous” might be my “humorous”). Our fellow bloggers at “Overlawyered” scan the news for indications that our over-litigious society is out of control, with greedy lawyers in eternal pursuit of the almighty dollar. They are not lacking for material.
When they blogged a recent jury award for discrimination, they implied that once again, juries had fallen under the spell of slick attorneys. Here’s their summary:
Sonoma County, Calif., allowed health care caseworker George Alberigi, 52, to interview Medi-Cal clients by phone from his home, by way of accommodating his psychiatric conditions, namely panic disorder and agoraphobia (fear of public places). Then in 2001 he applied for a promotion. The county turned him down on the grounds that the higher-level job required meeting clients in person. Disheartened, Alberigi went on permanent medical disability. Now a jury has awarded him $1.5 million in lost wages and $5 million in other damages including pain and suffering.
From this summary, it sounds as if Alberigi used his disability to leverage the system.
Another Point of View
We find a lot more detail and a radically different perspective on this case in another law blog. There is little doubt that Alberigi had a mental disability. In the mid-1980s, Alberigi was first diagnosed with panic disorder and agoraphobia. The panic attacks caused Alberigi to get tense all over, his muscles got ridged, he would grit his teeth, squeezing and ringing his hands. Sometimes he was rigid with panic, and unable to think. His heart beat fast and, he started holding his breath, squeezed his eyes shut and felt like he was going to die. As Alberigi stated, “Sometimes I wished that I would die to get away from the panic.”
Despite this disability, Alberigi was able to function as a case worker, even though the disability made it difficult for him to interact in person with strangers. The County accommodated Alberigi’s disabilities for fifteen years by allowing him to restrict his face-to-face contact with clients. Although he came to the office each day and interacted regularly with co-workers, he was allowed to conduct business with clients primarily by telephone and only rarely met face-to-face with clients. He apparently performed his job well. He had received numerous commendations for his willingness to help others. His performance reviews stressed this positive aspect of his character:
– “Mr. Alberigi is always supportive of co-workers. He provides a calming influence in the unit in times of stress for others.” [Note the irony in that comment!]
– “His positive and upbeat attitude have made him well liked and respected by his co-workers.”
In 2000, he received his division’s Distinguished Employee Award:
“George always helps co-workers with their caseloads when he has extra time… He always expresses a positive attitude towards clients and co-workers and goes the extra mile to help others.”
Change for the Worse
It does not appear that Alberigi was seeking a promotion. Instead, in 2001 the County transferred him from his long-term position, allegedly for the purpose of enabling him to gain more experience and be promoted. The County, however, did not give Alberigi a choice and made no effort to accommodate his known disabilities. The new position required face-to-face contact. As a result, Alberigi experienced severe anxiety and panic attacks in 2002 and went out on disability. The County sent him to doctors of their choosing for a fitness-for-duty evaluation. These doctors concluded that Alberigi did suffer from panic disorder with agoraphobia and recommended that he be assigned a caseload that did not involve face-to-face contact with clients.
Despite these recommendations from their own doctors, the County refused to accommodate Alberigi, claiming for the first time that face-to-face contact with clients was an essential function of the position. Alberigi asked to be returned to his old position. The County refused this request. Hence the lawsuit.
Learning to Listen
Despite his severe disability, Alberigi was able to function as a dedicated and competent employee. He had the respect and support of his coworkers. Management, for reasons unknown, decided to shake up his narrow world and force him out of a nurturing situation. This obviously did not work to anyone’s advantage. The result was a disservice to Alberigi, to his employer and to the taxpayers of Sonoma County.
In addition, the story becomes fodder for perpetuation of a particular world view. If you only focus on the jury award, you may well conclude that this case involved a miscarriage of justice: Alberigi (and his attorneys) did not deserve the settlement. Once again, a jury came up with a ridiculous and undeserved award. The reality appears a bit more complicated. The Insider is all for reform of a judicial system that treats pain and suffering like a lottery. On the other hand, managers – people with control over others – need to be held accountable for their actions. Managers need to combine their vision of the work that needs doing with the realities of the people doing it. In this sad tale, management apparently lost sight of its mission, abused its powers and prevented a proven employee from carrying out his job. No doubt about it, they have to pay for these mistakes.