The traditional role of the mental health expert in a civil lawsuit alleging emotional injury has been to determine whether such an injury occurred and, if so, what was the cause. In recent years, however, some courts have allowed mental health experts to play an expanded role in employment discrimination and harassment lawsuits. Specifically, these courts have become increasingly willing to consider whether the plaintiff's own prior psychopathology contributed to the genesis of the workplace dispute being litigated. In other words, the plaintiff's psychological problems may have caused the workplace dispute in question, instead of vice versa. These prior problems typically take the form of a personality disorder.
Personality Disorders in the Workplace
Personality disorders often cause conflicts between a plaintiff and their co-workers that lead to claims of victimization by the plaintiff. In this sense, a plaintiff suffering from a personality disorder may not merely be the innocent victim of another's unprovoked wrongdoing. Such a plaintiff's own irritability, perfectionism, manipulation of others or sexually suggestive behavior is often the beginning of a chain of events that ultimately leads to a claim of wrongful termination, harassment or discrimination.
For example, an employee with borderline personality disorder (BPD) may direct sexually suggestive comments or even blatantly seductive conduct toward a supervisor and then angrily accuse the supervisor of sexual harassment should they respond. People with BPD tend to view others (particularly those in positions of authority) in extreme terms as either all good or all bad. Such an employee may idolize their supervisor until their work performance is criticized and then react with rage and accuse their supervisor of misconduct.
In Ramirez v Kelly (1997), the plaintiff and the defendant (who was above the plaintiff in the chain of command) had an ongoing sexual relationship. After the plaintiff found out that the defendant was married, she sued him for sexual harassment, claiming that she was raped and coerced to carry on the sexual relationship. She was diagnosed by the defense psychiatric expert as having BPD. The Table shows how other personality disorders may manifest in the workplace.
Personality disorders are often relevant to a plaintiff's perception of the events that precede litigation. Individuals with personality disorders often interpret events in a distorted fashion. This frequently accounts for the diametrically opposite characterization of the very same event by plaintiff and defendant in so many employment lawsuits, particularly in he said/she said cases where there are no third-party witnesses to help break the credibility impasse.
Employees with personality disorders tend to have relatively good contact with reality. Thus, their accusations of co-worker misconduct, although false, are not obviously bizarre and may sound quite plausible. Often, to the person with BPD, "believing is seeing."
For example, if an employee with BPD presumes that a colleague is thinking in sexual terms, a variety of behaviors can be construed as sexual in nature -- choice of clothing, a smile, an inadvertent touch, a compliment, standing close by, an invitation to lunch, glances or references to other relationships. Similarly, if the employee assumes that others are discriminating against them, this assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy -- discrimination is perceived to be lurking around every corner. Inattention, inadvertent slights, nonspecific discourtesy, lack of personal concern, random acts of preference and other ordinary events may be construed as evidence of discrimination.
Recognition of Personality Disorders by Courts
Lowe v Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., 594 F. Supp. 123 (E.D. Pa. 1984).
Pascouau v Martin Marietta Corporation, 994 F. Supp. 1276 (D. Colo. 1998), aff'd in relevant part, 185 F. 3d 874 (10th Cir. 1999) (table).
Ramirez v Kelly, 1997 WL 223053 (N.D. Ill. 1997).
Spencer v General Electric Co., 697 F. Supp. 204 (E.D. Va. 1988), aff'd, 894 F.2d 651 (4th Cir. 1990).
Sudtelgte v Reno, 63 FEP Cases 1257 (W.D. Mo. 1994).