Law Firm In New York Held Liable For $600,000 To Attorney Whom The Firm Fired Because Of His Bipolar Disorder

On October 27, 2010, in Hazen v. Hill, Betts & Nash, LLP, Case No. 10114676 (N.Y. State Div. of Human Rights Oct. 27, 2010), the New York State Division of Human Rights (the "Division of Human Rights" or the "Division"), by a Notice and Final Order (the "Order") amending and adopting the recommendation of an administrative law judge (the "ALJ"), held that the respondent Hill, Betts & Nash, LLP, a 16-attorney law firm located in New York City, was liable to the complainant James M. Hazen, Esq., a former non-equity partner of the law firm, for $598,161 plus interest for firing the complainant because of his mental disability (specifically, bipolar disorder), for refusing reasonably to accommodate the complainant's mental disability, and for retaliating against the complainant because he opposed such practices.  The Division of Human Rights' award of $598,161 to the complainant consisted of $548,161 for lost wages and $50,000 for mental anguish.

In Hazen, the New York State Division of Human Rights held that the respondent law firm's above-mentioned actions violated the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law §§ 290-301 (the "State Human Rights Law").

The Division of Human Rights' Hazen Order followed four days of public hearing sessions before the ALJ.

Employers in New York can draw at least two important lessons from the Division of Human Rights' Hazen Order.  The last section of this post explains these two teaching points.

The Facts

In Hazen, the complainant attorney, who was 61 years old at the time of the hearing, was a contract partner of the respondent law firm and a "brilliant trial lawyer."  The complainant "had been performing capably for approximately 17 years" as an attorney for the firm.

In August 2005, the law firm assigned the complainant attorney to litigate a large case involving potential damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  The law firm authorized the complainant to rent hotel rooms in connection with the case using a firm credit card, but the firm expected that the complainant would require only a few nights at a hotel.

Instead, from September 2005 through January 2006, the complainant lawyer "charged approximately 50 hotel room rentals, car service, alcohol, adult movies, and phone calls to escort services to his [firm] credit card," incurring non-business-related charges of at least $21,118.   The Hazen Order found that "Complainant made these charges while he was suffering from [the manic phase of] the disability of [bipolar disorder]."  The Division of Human Rights credited the complainant's treating psychiatrist's testimony that "someone suffering from [bipolar disorder] can be grandiose in thinking, impaired in judgment, impulsive in action, tending to do things in excess, and sexually acting out inappropriately."

For many years, the law firm had allowed the complainant and other firm attorneys "to put personal charges on [their firm credit] card[s] as long as [they] accounted for their personal usage and paid [the firm] for this usage."

From September 2005 through January 2006, on those irregular occasions when the complainant attorney was present at the respondent law firm's offices, he exhibited disruptive behavior, had deportment  problems, and made inappropriate noise and remarks.  The Hazen Order found that this erratic behavior, too, was caused by the complainant's bipolar disorder.

In December 2005 , the complainant attorney left a note for Gregory O'Neill ("O'Neill"), one of the respondent law firm's two equity partners, stating that he (the complainant) had health issues to deal with that were causing " 'personality changes,' " and that he had to stay home and rest.  In January 2006, the complainant sent an e-mail to O'Neill stating that he had been " 'on the verge of collapse,' " was under stress from work, and was under orders from both his internist and his therapist to " 'decompress.' "  O'Neill never replied to the complainant's e-mail and did not discuss it with the complainant when O'Neill saw him later that week.

Read the entire article at the New York Business Litigation and Employment Attorneys Blog, a blog by David S. Rich