Janet Alroy, a human resources employee, was fired in 2009 after having an intense panic attack, leaving her office and not returning for two days, according to court records.
Tim White of Valdez and White Law Firm, who represented Alroy in her wrongful termination lawsuit, said the case has been ongoing for nearly five years and was originally ruled in favor of UNM. But White appealed the decision and won the case earlier this month.
“I’ve been a lawyer for 26 years and I’ve never had a sweeter or prouder moment than getting the verdict for her that said UNM did wrong,” White said. “Neither of us cared if it was just a dollar. We cared that they answered yes, that UNM had violated her rights.”
In July of 2009, Alroy was confronted by an angry employee who was yelling and slamming her hands on Alroy’s desk, according to court documents. The incident triggered a panic attack that caused Alroy to have to leave work and take the next two days off, the documents state.
When Alroy returned to work she was placed on administrative leave and eventually fired, according to court records.
According the court records, UNM fired Alroy for leaving work without permission and for sending an email containing swear words to another employee. The second incident was unrelated to the situation that created Alroy’s panic attack.
Alroy has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder and experiences panic attacks when she is confronted with aggressive behavior, White said.
Alroy worked in the benefits department of Human Resources and often encountered hostile behavior from employees who were disgruntled about benefits procedures, he said.
According to court documents, Alroy approached her supervisor, Joseph Evans, to discuss her disability and ask for accommodation months before the incident that triggered her panic attack, but never received them.
Instead, Alroy was told to she “need[ed] to learn how to let it roll off [her] back,” the documents state.
“After Jan had been there for about 10 months, she couldn’t deal with it anymore without getting some kind of help,” White said. “Basically, she got ignored.”
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In an official statement regarding the verdict, UNM officials said they still believe the University was not in the wrong.
“We believe the University’s policies and procedures provide our employees with every opportunity to be successful in their work,” the statement reads. “While we appreciate the jury’s deliberations, we respectfully disagree and are disappointed with the verdict. University Counsel is reviewing the case and considering our options.”
White said one of the major problems with this case was that Evans was not trained to deal with employees who have disabilities, he said.
University officials confirmed there is a voluntary training program through Human Resources that teaches employees the details of the Americans with Disabilities Act and how it pertains to UNM policies, but White said Evans never attended the training.
“This particular supervisor had had no training as a manager, no training in UNM’s reasonable accommodation policy,” White said. “Nor had he had any training in the generic idea of ‘what do you do if an employee comes with a medical or mental health condition?’”
To Alroy, the victory in court is a message to UNM that all of its managers should be trained to deal with employees with disabilities, White said.
White said he hopes the lawsuit will cause some changes in UNM’s policy.
“What I really hope is that UNM will require all of their managers to attend that training so that this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” he said.
Daniel Montaño is a staff reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JournoByDaniel.