The courts have begun to recognize the important role that personality disorders play in the genesis of disputes involving alleged workplace harassment and discrimination. In the racial harassment case Lowe v Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. (1984), the court admitted the testimony of a psychiatrist to show that, because of a personality disorder, the plaintiff was oversensitive to ordinary criticism and perceived it as harassment. The plaintiff had attempted to exclude testimony of defense psychiatrists concerning her personality disorder.
In refusing to block the testimony, the court observed that it was relevant to "whether the alleged harassment claimed by plaintiff is racial and is harassment at all." The court noted that one defense psychiatrist had testified that the plaintiff was overly sensitive and may have overreacted to events on the job. As the Lowe court explained (pp125-26):
Testimony concerning a...plaintiff's mental disorder which causes him or her to perceive criticism as harassment, and to perceive racial slurs where no racial motivation is present, is highly relevant to the question whether plaintiff's perception of racial harassment is correct.
A personality disorder was found to be at the root of a sexual harassment claim in Spencer v General Electric Co. (1988). Although the court in that case found a hostile working environment to exist based upon sexual joking and horseplay on the part of the plaintiff's supervisor and co-workers, it rejected the plaintiff's allegations of more serious misconduct, including "more than 100 sexual assaults" by her supervisor, none of which were corroborated by other witnesses. The plaintiff attempted to explain the numerous inconsistencies in her story via testimony from her psychiatrist that the harassing events caused her to develop a posttraumatic stress disorder that impaired her ability to recall details. The court rejected this notion and instead credited the defense psychiatrist's testimony that the plaintiff suffered from histrionic personality disorder (HPD) and that her memory problems resulted from convenient selectivity rather than emotional trauma.
In Sudtelgte v Reno (1994), the court admitted psychiatric testimony in a sexual harassment lawsuit concerning the fact that the plaintiff suffered from paranoid personality disorder (PPD) that adversely affected her ability to get along with supervisors and co-workers and caused her to feel persistently "picked on." The Sudtelgte court held that although the plaintiff may have felt subjectively harassed, it was the result of her abnormal sensitivity caused by her personality disorder, and she could not show that a "reasonable woman" would have been similarly offended. The Sudtelgte court also noted the impact of the plaintiff's personality disorder on her credibility, observing that the plaintiff's "current perceptions of present and past events are grossly unreliable, probably because of her mental illness."
The most recent and dramatic recognition by a court of the role of personality disorders in the genesis of harassment and discrimination claims occurred in Pascouau v Martin Marietta Corporation (1998). In this case, the plaintiff claimed that co-workers called her names and passed gas in her presence. The court concluded, "The conduct that could be described as harassment was not based on gender, but rather on Plaintiff's demonstrated lack of interpersonal skills."
In its discussion of the facts of the case, the court described at some length the plaintiff's pre-existing psychological problems, many of which arose from her dysfunctional childhood. One of the plaintiff's pre-existing conditions was mixed personality disorder with borderline and narcissistic characteristics. The Pascouau court explained its relevance: