Mood Disorder Or Misconduct?

Randi Klein Hyatt
Randi Klein Hyatt

In 2005, James Hazen was a partner in a New York law firm.  One of the perks of being a partner was a corporate credit card, which Hazen could use for personal reasons, so long as he paid for the charges.  In December 2005, the firm’s accounting department reported that Hazen failed to submit any itemization of personal charges for the fourth quarter.  Rather than give an explanation, Hazen stopped going to the office, claiming that he needed to decompress.  In the meantime, the firm audited his credit card bills and uncovered more than $20,000 in personal charges for October-December 2005 for such things as over 50 hotel stays, limousines, adult movies, and calls to escort services.

Another partner reported that Hazen was in a terrible state and had a mental ailment for which he was seeking treatment.  When the firm requested medical documentation of his alleged ailment, Hazen refused to provide it.  He later admitted to listing his personal expenses on the credit card bills as chargeable to clients, but blamed it on an unidentified mood disorder.  Hazen was fired a week or so later in February 2006.

Hazen filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights claiming disability discrimination and retaliation, alleging that the firm fired him because of his bipolar disorder.  An ALJ for the agency found in Hazen’s favor, ultimately awarding him more than $500,000 in damages.  On appeal, the New York appellate court reversed the decision and award, finding no evidence that the law firm had any knowledge of Hazen’s bipolar disorder or that it limited his performance as an attorney.  The court noted that the firm received no documentation of any mental impairment, other than Hazen’s vague references to a mood disorder or emotional illness.  Even if the firm knew of Hazen’s impairment, however, the court held that it did not excuse Hazen’s misconduct, and the firm was entitled to take appropriate discipline, in this case, discharge.  Hazen v. Hill Betts & Nash, No. 5517 (N.Y. App. Div. Jan. 5, 2012).

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