In the spring of 2013, Janet White felt that she couldn’t stay at work anymore.
White, who worked as a program manager at the Graduate School of Education, had managed her bipolar II disorder for the past six years without a major episode. In late 2012, the condition flared up again, sending her to cry in the bathroom for 30 minutes at a time at work and experience severe mood swings. She decided to take an eight-week leave of absence from her job in May 2013.
White claims that upon returning to work, she got a negative performance review and was subsequently demoted because of her leave. She filed suit against the University on Dec. 2, 2013 in United States District Court in Camden, N.J., accusing the University of violating the Family Medical Leave Act. The federal law entitles eligible employees to take unpaid leave without punishment for specific family and medical reasons, including serious mental conditions.
“I want to draw attention to the fact that not only has Penn failed to seriously and meaningfully address the mental health concerns of its student body, this failure has extended to University employees as well,” White, a 1995 College graduate, wrote in a Feb. 11 letter to The Daily Pennsylvanian.
The University declined to comment, as the lawsuit is ongoing.
“We’d like to do anything we can — in any way we can — to advance the effort to see mental health treated equally with physical health,” said White’s New Jersey-based attorney, Michelle Douglass.
White began as program manager after a year at GSE and about 20 years in various Penn offices. As her mental condition worsened, she spoke to a staff member in the University’s Office of the Ombudsman and a University benefits specialist, both of whom assured her that she should take a leave of absence, according to the suit.
After meeting with a psychologist and support groups, White returned to work in the beginning of July with notes from her doctor, the complaint reads. Two weeks after she got back, she received her performance evaluation.
“Absences from work are … within any employee’s rights,” reads a copy of the evaluation submitted as an exhibit with the suit. “While legitimate, Coordinator absences, of course, exacerbate these workload difficulties. This was the case at the end of the academic year.”
Her supervisor told White that her position would be discontinued and that she would become an administrative assistant, the complaint reads, which White considered a demotion from her previous position. She tried to work out the dispute through the University ombudsman, the suit claims, but was unable to come to a resolution about her position and about removing a review that she felt would harm her ability to get new jobs.
“Sometimes, the only way to get somebody’s attention is to file a lawsuit,” Douglass said of Penn. The best-case scenario she envisions for White is a new assignment within the University or an entirely new position — without the recent performance evaluation in her file.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages “to vindicate [White’s] rights under the laws.”
As White watched the debates about the state of mental health and resources on campus unfold in the wake of this semester’s suicides, she wanted to share her experience.
“I hope that whatever the outcome,” she wrote in the letter, “my story will help to further improve the way mental illness is viewed and treated at Penn.”