Last December, the Connecticut Supreme Court held in Desrosiers v. Diageo North America, Inc., 314 Conn. 773 (2014), that the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act, Conn. Gen. Stat. §46a-51 et seq., prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals whom they perceive to be physically disabled regardless of whether the individual has an actual physical disability as defined under the Act. Despite the Court’s apparent expansion of the state’s anti-discrimination laws, the Appellate Court’s recent decision in Eaddy v. City of Bridgeport, 156 Conn. App. 597 (2015), suggests that it may not be easy for plaintiffs to succeed on “perceived” disability claims.
In Eaddy, the plaintiff was a former probationary police officer who brought an employment discrimination action against the City of Bridgeport following the termination of her employment. The plaintiff initially received “very good ratings on various qualities” as a probationary officer until an incident with another officer occurred, which resulted in the plaintiff’s voluntary psychiatric admission to a hospital. The plaintiff ultimately remained hospitalized for 10 days and then was directed by the chief of police to submit to a psychological evaluation, whereby a report was prepared. Upon a review of the psychological report, as well as reports from other police officers “express[ing] concern over the plaintiff’s ability to provide competent support and backup during potentially urgent situations,” the plaintiff’s employment with the City was terminated. The plaintiff alleged that the City unlawfully terminated her because it regarded her as having a mental disability when in fact she had suffered from an “acute psychological stress reaction” which had been medically resolved by the time of her termination. The City argued that it terminated the plaintiff because she was not “fit” to be a police officer. The trial court entered judgment in favor of the City noting that while there were numerous differences between the plaintiff’s version of events and the version described by her fellow officers, “none of those differences serve to establish that the plaintiff was suffering from an existing or perceived ‘mental disability’ as those words are defined in [the Act].”
On appeal, the Appellate Court agreed in finding that the plaintiff did not prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the City regarded her as having a mental disability as defined in C.G.S. § 46a-51(20) of the Act, which defines “mental disability” as “an individual who has a record of, or is regarded as having one or more mental disorders, as defined in . . . the American Psychiatric Association’s ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.’” Despite the plaintiff’s claim that the City regarded her as mentally disabled in part based on the psychological report, the Appellate Court found nothing erroneous in the trial court’s conclusions and instead deferred to the trial court’s credibility assessment of the plaintiff and the other witnesses. The Court held: “[T]he [trial] court reasonably could have concluded that the plaintiff was not perceived to be suffering from a mental disorder defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but rather from a more general lack of requisite temperament.”