One afternoon in April 2004, Sean Reilly, a college student at the University of Portland, in Oregon, stripped off his clothes, hopped into the bushes behind his dorm, and began meditating.
It was odd behavior for Reilly, an honor student and Presidential Scholar. But it was just one of many strange things Reilly had been doing. He had stopped eating, and his weight dropped from 175 to 137.5. He talked rapidly, moving from topic to topic. He announced that he had discovered the "key to enlightenment," and ran barefoot into church to share the news. "People started losing track of my thought process," Reilly, now 27, recalls.
Finally, he was taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, a mood disorder affecting about 5.7 million Americans and, according to the World Health Organization, the sixth- leading cause of disability worldwide.
He was given medications like Depakote, and Zyprexa, but had another manic episode a year later. In June 2006, after failing most of his classes, he dropped out of school and returned home to Walla Walla, Wash., where he got a job as an assistant manager at Cottonwood Financial, which owns and operates payday lending stores in over a half-dozen states.
Before starting work, he told his boss about his condition. Not that he was obligated to legally—"I just thought it would be safer to let them know that I had bipolar disorder, in case I had to leave early to see a doctor," he says.
The company said they didn't have a problem with it, and Reilly thrived. He won an achievement award and was promoted to store manager. But as time went on he began slipping. In October of that year, after gaining almost 100 pounds (a side effect from his medication), he stopped taking it.
Soon, "I began getting really paranoid, thinking customers were talking about me and that cameras were watching me," he says. He threw out his cell phone because he worried that people were eavesdropping on his calls. Finally, one weekend in late January, 2007, he had a breakdown.
He had never missed a day of work before, but on Monday he called in sick. His boss told him there was no one to cover the store that he had to come in. He reluctantly did so, but requested a two-week leave. His request was denied; in February, he was fired.
Devastated ("This job made me feel like I had a purpose again after leaving school," he says), he filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). They argued that the company had violated the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), both of which outlaw firing an employee due to disability and prohibit adverse employment decisions motivated, even in part, by ill will toward an employee's real or perceived disability or request for an accommodation.