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Connecticut Adopts DSM Definition of Mental Disability

July 6, 2001

The Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act ("FEPA") prohibits employment discrimination based on "present or past history of mental disorder." Until recently, however, the statute did not define "mental disorder." Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46a-60.

The Connecticut General Assembly has now amended FEPA to include a definition of "mental disability" that relies on the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual ("DSM"). This amendment takes effect on October 1, 2001.

The new law, Public Act 1-28, replaces the term "mental disorder" with "mental disability." According to the amendment, "[m]ental disability refers to an individual who has a record of, or is regarded as having one or more mental disorders, as defined in the most recent edition of the American Psychiatric Association's 'Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.'" 2001 Conn. Legis. Serv. P.A. 01-28 § 1(20) (West).

This definition of mental disability differs from the applicable definition under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act ("ADA"). The ADA protects individuals whose mental impairment "substantially limits one or more … major life activities ." 42 U.S.C. § 12102. Also unlike the newly amended Connecticut statute, the ADA excludes from coverage certain disabilities, including current drug abuse.

The impact of the amendment is unclear. Another Connecticut law, Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 17a-458 and 549, already uses the DSM to define "psychiatric disability," and may provide an independent basis for an employment discrimination suit. See Doe v. Odili Technologies, Inc., 1999 Conn. Super. LEXIS 3120, *6 (1999). Furthermore, some Connecticut courts have already been referring to § 17a-458, and thus to the DSM, in deciding actions brought under FEPA. See Conway v. City of Hartford, 1997 Conn. Super. LEXIS 282 (1997) (dismissed on other grounds).

In any event, the amendment preserves for employers the customary defense that their actions were based on a bona fide occupational qualification -- i.e., that the employee's disability prevented her or him from doing the job.