Creative--Arty or Disabled

Creative--Arty or Disabled

By Lisa Burton of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP

Known for its creative and avant-garde employees, the fashion industry is poised to be the first industry to address the ADA Amendments1 and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).  On October 15, 2012, Ulrike Lindauer sued Chanel, Inc., claiming disability and perceived disability under federal and state law, as well as violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act. This former senior vice president of Fragrance Marketing and Harvard MBA contends that her work environment caused her physical and mental deterioration to the point of a nervous breakdown.  Her weight dropped to only 97 pounds for a 5'10" frame. Yet, despite her "severe anxiety, extreme weight loss and depression," Lindauer's performance remained "excellent" throughout her tenure, producing "great" results for Chanel until her employment termination.  While we are limited to Lindauer's version of events until the matter progresses, the case is nevertheless troubling for the fashion-forward as well as for employers in general.  

The fashion industry is fast-paced, ever-changing and high-stress. One would expect the demands on a senior vice president making $270,000 per year to be even more challenging and stressful in an environment where the symptoms of GAD appear almost commonplace. Known for larger-than-life personalities and industry icons, industry management already is aware that it should not to jump to conclusions about an employee's mental health, physical appearance or disabilities, but rather must keep open lines of communication and remain attuned to potential requests for accommodation.  Warned by their lawyers, management will make sure not to create the potential for a claim of perceived disability discrimination under the ADA when an employee who is asked about his health or appearance claims nothing is the matter or that he is just tired because he has had to work long hours to meet a deadline.  This stand-back and not assume approach has been particularly true when an employee is meeting or exceeding performance expectations. 

Depending on how this case evolves, standard practice in creative industries may need to be adjusted to assume more risk with regard to a perceived disability case, rather than face a claim that the employer violated the ADA for failing to draw a conclusion. Otherwise, employers may need to include, in the essential requirements of the position: ability to work in a judgmental, highly stressful, often unforgiving environment with complex and differing personalities.

1. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Amendments Act of 2008 was signed into law September 25, 2008 and became effective January 1, 2009.

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