April 6, 2012 -- 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.
On March 28, after a four-day bench trial, Judge Edward F. Shea of US District Court for Eastern Washington ruled in Reilly's favor, noting "Cottonwood's deficient ADA policies and practices." He found that the company's half-dozen different rationales for terminating Reilly were simply a pretext for discrimination. The Judge awarded Reilly $6,500 in back wages and $50,000 for emotional pain and suffering. The court also issued a three-year injunction, requiring The Cash Store to train its managers and human resources personnel on anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation laws.
This is not the first case of its kind for the EEOC.
In 2003, the EEOC sued Lincoln, Nebraska-based Voss Electric Co. on behalf of a former worker with bipolar disorder. The EEOC charged Voss with violating the ADA by terminating a long-time employee of its Oklahoma City facility who needed in-patient care because of bipolar disorder. Rather than allow the employee the additional time off recommended by his physicians, Voss fired him by taping a termination letter to the front door of his home. The employee was awarded $91,250.
Still, "This is the first case taken to trial by the EEOC involving someone who is bipolar," says William Tamayo, the EEOC's regional attorney in San Francisco."These are generally harder cases to win, in part because mental disability is a much more difficult area for litigation than physical disability. But here the judge concluded that Cottonwood was motivated by a bias against people with this kind of disability after Mr. Reilly had disclosed that he was bipolar, and they fired him because he was being regarded as disabled."
The case is "precedent-setting because Judge Shea concluded that Sean was illegally fired due to the fact that The Cash Store regarded and perceived him as disabled and unable to do his job, when the actual facts were that Sean had been performing his job to the standards set by the company," says Reilly's private counsel, Keller Allen, of Spokane, Wash.
Reilly, meanwhile, returned to school and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Washington, Richland, with a degree in physical science in 2010. His medication is under control, and he feels infinitely better. The ruling has only helped his mood.
"Getting fired told me that not only can I not succeed at school, I can't even get a job," he says." I got really depressed at that. So, when I won it was like all those years of emotional baggage suddenly went away. The judge reassured me and commended me for not letting my disability get in my way. I hope this verdict enables other people with bipolar disorder to have an equal chance at obtaining and maintaining successful and fulfilling careers and to prevent future discrimination."