Bi-Polar Receptionist: The welcome from hell?

July 17th, 2006 by

Michael Mammone worked as a receptionist at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum for seven years. All went well until he suffered a severe manic episode, described by the law firm of Goodwin Proctor as follows:
He established a website protesting what he believed to be low wages paid by the university and began to distribute flyers advertising the website while on duty at the reception desk in the main lobby of the museum. He engaged coworkers in loud and animated conversations regarding the issues addressed on his website, and frequently used his personal laptop computer to access and update the website during his shift. He sung along with, clapped to, and danced to protest songs from his website while stationed at the reception desk. When his supervisor ordered him not to use his laptop at work, he refused to obey her instruction. (Sounds to the Insider that he just wanted to behave like an ordinary undergraduate.)
As his manic episode reached his zenith, Mammone’s supervisor received a complaint that his belligerent attitude was not only affecting the museum’s staff, but also visitors to the museum. When the supervisor attempted to discuss these concerns with him in a private conference room, he refused to meet with her, stating “get away from me, you’re evil.” The situation escalated with Mammone refusing an order from the supervisor and two university police officers to leave the premises – instead, he sat in the middle of the museum lobby floor. Ultimately, he was arrested for trespass and removed from the museum by the police. Later in the day, he entered another university museum. When his supervisor encountered him there and ordered him to leave, he responded with expletives and a threatening comment and left the building.
Rather than fire Mammone imediately after he was forcefully removed from the museum, he was placed on disability leave. This leave faciliated treatment for his illness. When the leave expired after six months, he was officially terminated (although the record indicates that the university had never considered bringing him back after completion of his treatment).
Accommodate or Terminate?
The question before the court was one of accommodation. Did the University have an obligation to accommodate Mammone’s mental illness? Or did his egregious behaviour (driven, of course, by his mental illness) provide the university grounds for terminating his employment? When the University fired Mammone, he sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act for wrongful termination. In his view, the university had an obligation to accommodate him, due to his mental disability.
The Massachusetts SJC issued a summary judgment in favor of the university. Justice Cordy, writing for the majority of the court, concluded that “egregious workplace misconduct disqualifie[s] an employee from protection of the statute without regard to whether that employee could at some future date conform [his] behavior to acceptable standards.” The one dissenting justice opined that Mammone should be given the opportunity to present his case to a jury.
Justice and the Common Good
There is one aspect of this decision that puzzles me. At the height of his manic episode, there is no doubt that Mammone had to be removed from the job. But once the University facilitated treatment by putting him on extended leave, it appears that they at least cracked open a door for accommodation. During the disability leave, Mammone received treatment. His bipolar disorder came under control. When the leave ended, no one seemed to ask the question whether Mammone was ready to return to work. No one asked whether he was well enough to resume his job as a museum receptionist. Harvard had already decided to fire him for behaviour that had occurred six months prior to the treatment. The court backed the employer in this firing. Mamone apparently crossed a line during his manic phase, and no amount of treatment and no prescribed medication would enable him to retain his job.
While the court determined that Mammone’s termination was not an act of discrimination, this narrow reading of the law may not have resulted in the best course of action. Seven years of satisfactory performance disappeared in the bizarre rush of a manic episode. I wonder what would have happened if he had been given the opportunity to apologize to his supervisor and return to his job. Is the University really better off without him? Is Mammone himself any the better for having gone through this episode and returned to a relatively sane existence, albeit unemployed? In Mammone’s case, justice may have been served, but something larger and perhaps more important may have been lost in the process.