Revised DSM-5 Could Open Up Wider Legal Claims

The American Psychiatric Association is revising its highly influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, currently known as DSM-IV (the fifth version will be “DSM-V” or, since a switch to Arabic numbering is planned, “DSM-5”). Nearly 8,000 persons have signed a petition, sponsored by the Society for Humanistic Psychology, Division 32 of the American Psychological Association, which challenges the revision’s proposed widening of the definitions of mental disorder. The letter associated with the petition warns that the revision proposes to lower diagnostic thresholds for many categories of disorder without good reason, as well as introducing new constructs such as “Internet Addiction Disorder” that have “no basis in the empirical literature.” The expansion could lead to inappropriate medical treatment as well as other ill effects.

David Foley at Labor Related spells out some of the legal implications for the workplace:

Among others, the changes in the DSM-V could impact Americans with Disabilities Act claims (is the plaintiff disabled, what is a reasonable accommodation, etc), Family Medical Leave Act claims (does plaintiff suffer from a serious illness) and workers compensation laws (does plaintiff have an illness and was it caused by work).

Introducing a new category of Mild Neurocognitive Disorder, for example, could entitle workers to begin claiming job-related accommodation for cognitive deficits often associated with advancing age – perhaps especially significant since federal law has made it unlawful for most private employers to set policies of automatic retirement at any particular age. As Foley notes, the task force is also planning to reduce the diagnostic threshold for two disabilities that generate many ADA claims already: Attention Deficit Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Employers already face serious legal risks under existing law if they decline to accommodate employees with mental and behavioral deficits (which may include substance abuse, at least if the worker has entered rehab). As I noted the other day at Overlawyered, a hotel chain has agreed to pay $132,500 for dismissing an autistic front desk clerk rather than working with a state-paid “job coach” to remedy his deficiencies. The EEOC sued an insurance company that rescinded a job offer as an agent to an applicant after he tested positive for methadone. An Iowa jury awarded $1.1 million against a university for failing to accommodate an employee’s request for a lighter work load and other changes after she was diagnosed with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. And HR lawyers have warned employers that administering personality tests to new workers could violate the law by improperly revealing protected conditions such as “paranoid personality disorder.”

Earlier posts on the ADA and mental/behavioral deficits here (trucking firm sued for avoiding drivers with drinking history), here and here.