Was Petco Manager Wrongly Called Mentally Impaired?

From labor disputes cases to labor and employment publications, for your research, you’ll find solutions on Bloomberg Law®. Protect your clients by developing strategies based on Litigation...

By Patrick Dorrian

Petco mistreated a former manager with a physical impairment that causes stress-related headaches and wrongly referred to her as mentally disabled, a lawsuit filed in federal court in Pittsburgh alleges ( Rizzardi v. Petco Animal Supplies Stores, Inc. , W.D. Pa., No. 2:17-cv-00160, complaint filed 2/3/17 ).

Brittany Rizzardi claims the general manager of her Petco Animal Supplies Stores Inc. store in Greensburg, Pa., incorrectly referred to her brain malformation as “mental health issues.” When Rizzardi became upset with that characterization, she was issued a written reprimand and then demoted from her full-time manager position in the dog and cat department to a part-time sales associate job.

The company later fired her, Rizzardi asserts in a complaint filed Feb. 3 with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Petco’s decisions to demote and discharge her after she requested an accommodation for her condition also amounted to retaliation, Rizzardi alleges. She had requested that Petco do something about the conduct of some of her subordinates whose behavior was causing her undue stress and exacerbating her head pain, she claims.

The lawsuit highlights that employers sometimes may have difficulty distinguishing when a worker has a physical impairment rather than a mental impairment. The issue of workers with mental health conditions and their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act is an area of focus for federal enforcement authorities.

Rizzardi’s condition, chiari malformation, is a structural defect of the part of the brain that controls balance, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Mental Health Issues on EEOC’s Radar

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in December posted to its website a publication on the job rights of employees and applicants with mental health conditions and a related fact sheet for mental-health-care providers. The latter document has been described as a “gift for employers” as it describes the type of documentation a medical provider can furnish a company evaluating a worker’s condition and need for accommodation.

Preliminary data released by the agency show it resolved nearly 5,000 charges of discrimination based on such conditions during its 2016 fiscal year, recovering approximately $20 million from employers.

In addition to protecting workers from discrimination based on an actual disability, the ADA also generally prohibits employers from discriminating against a worker who is incorrectly viewed as or “regarded as” having a particular disability.

Rizzardi’s complaint alleges that Petco told her she was being demoted because her demeanor toward her general manager was “unacceptable and unprofessional.” Rizzardi denies the company’s characterization of her reaction.

Petco doesn’t comment on pending litigation, a company spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 6 in an e-mail.

Samuel J. Cordes & Associates represents Rizzardi. No attorney had filed an appearance yet for Petco.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Request Labor & Employment on Bloomberg Law