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Wisconsin Supreme Court sides with employer in disability discrimination dispute

The state Supreme Court has sided with employers in a critical dispute over disability discrimination. Charles Carlson alleged in his lawsuit that his employer, Wisconsin Bell, violated the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act (WFEA) when it fired him. The state Supreme Court recently decided that the company did not violate the law when it fired Carlson for conduct that broke workplace rules, even though Bell knew Carlson had bipolar disorder.

Carlson worked in the phone company's customer service call center, but was fired for having personal conversations on a company messaging system, avoiding customer calls and leaving work early.

The former Bell employee worked there for 25 years. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression and had argued that the company fired him for conduct that was caused by his disabilities and that his termination violated WFEA.

Carlson was working under a "last chance agreement" that followed a 50-day suspension received for avoiding customers' calls and hanging up on customers. His supervisors then learned he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The former employee argued that because his supervisors had learned of his disability, his firing was an act of intentional discrimination.

The District I Appeals Court had decided that there was sufficient evidence to find discrimination, but the Supreme Court reversed, stating that Carlson had not met the burden to prove that Wisconsin Bell knew it was bipolar disorder and depression that caused the behavior for which he was terminated.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley's dissenting opinion says the decision "removes the teeth from the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act's protections and creates an unworkable standard."

It remains to be seen how the Carlson decision will impact state courts, agencies and employers.

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