It is well known that both federal and state laws require certain employers to accommodate employees with disabilities under certain circumstances. This legal requirement has revolutionized the lives of many disabled individuals, rendering formerly “unemployable” people productive members of the nation’s workforce, to the advantage of both the affected individuals and the public at large.

What is less well known is that both California and federal law requires employers to accommodate certain mental disabilities as well. Since federal law applies along with state law throughout the state of California, employers must be sure to comply with both laws. If they directly conflict with each other, of course, federal law prevails.

The ADA and “Psychiatric Disability”

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) forbids a private employer with at least 15 employees from discriminating against certain disabled individuals with respect to job applications, hiring, promotions, discharge, compensation, training, and other terms of employment. Although the term “disability” is defined broadly enough to include psychiatric conditions, not every mental illness is considered a “psychiatric disability.”

About 18 percent of US employees report suffering from a mental health condition such as PTSD, depression, ADD, or bipolar disorder. The term “mental illness,” however, is a medical term, while “psychiatric disability” is a legal term. Under the ADA, a “psychiatric disability” is a “mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” This definition could be interpreted to include some impairments that would not qualify as mental illnesses. 


Subject to certain exceptions, a person with a psychiatric disability enjoys a privacy right to refrain from disclosing the existence of his condition during the hiring process. An employer is also prohibited from requiring an employee from disclosing a psychiatric disability after he has been hired. Of course, it is likely to be necessary for an employee to disclose his condition when requesting accommodation.

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act and “Mental Disability”

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) applies to employers with at least five employees. It requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” to people with a “mental disability” in the job application process as well as the performance of the essential functions of the job. An employer can be excused from this requirement to the extent that such accommodation would cause “undue hardship.” 

For example, an employer might be required to:

  • Change the employee’s job duties;

  • Offer medical leave;

  • Modify the employee’s work schedule;

  • Change the employee’s work location; or

  • Provide the employee with mechanical or electrical aids to help him work with his disability.

The Limits of “Reasonable Accommodation” Under Federal and State Law

Neither California nor federal law require employers to hire applicants, or to retain employees, whose disabilities prevent them from performing the essential features of the job even with reasonable accommodation. Furthermore, accommodation needs only to be “reasonable.” Although the term “reasonable” is ambiguous, it is likely to require something less than the maximum possible accommodation.

Contact Us for Sound Advice

If you are concerned about your company’s obligations under the Americans With Disabilities Act or the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, your concern is probably well-founded. CKB Vienna has been dealing with these issues for its clients for a long time now, and we’d like to help. Call our nearest office or contact us online to schedule a consultation. 

We serve clients in Rancho Cucamonga, San Bernardino County, Los Angeles County, Orange County, and Riverside County.