August 30, 2002

Jury Finds Cornell Innocent of Discrimination

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A federal jury rejected a former Cornell employee’s claim last week that the University had discriminated against her because of her multiple personality disorder.

Position

Patricia O’Neill, who worked in the library system from 1989 to 1999, filed a federal lawsuit against the University in August, 1999, after her contract was not renewed.

O’Neill suffers from a variety of mental disorders, including multiple personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression, according to Nelson E. Roth, who, along with Wendy Tarlow, represented Cornell.

After O’Neill took a part-time leave of absence in the spring of 1997, the University librarian temporarily removed her from her position as physical sciences librarian due to increasing concern about workplace issues, which included recurrent absences, according to Roth.

After temporarily removing O’Neill, the University librarian met with O’Neill’s staff, who “came forward virtually uniformly suggesting that the workplace was completely dysfunctional,” Roth said.

Due to their complaints, O’Neill was removed from her position, but paid in full for two years until her five-year contract expired in June 1999.

“[O’Neill] could not do her job,” Roth said. “The University had to balance the interests of running the library, her personal interests, and the interests of her staff. Her mental illness had nothing to do with it. Bad behavior is bad behavior.”

In an effort to receive long-term disability benefits, O’Neill wrote a letter to the University in 1998 in which she described her alter personalities, according to The Syracuse Post-Standard.

Disorder

In the letter, O’Neill stated that she has five alter personalities: Elaine, Quiet Elaine, Elizabeth, Youth and one other who did not want her name published, which rendered her incapable of concentrating at work. These alter personalities emerged in 1996 after O’Neill began to face the memories of childhood sexual abuse she had repressed, according to The Post-Standard.

“My behavior with my children and at work became more erratic as various alters became more active in my every day life, routinely showing up at work and at home,” O’Neill wrote. “There have been several instances where alters have been in charge at work. One caused the delay in getting a new computer operating system to function, leaving me without a computer station for a day.”

O’Neill now claims that the letter inaccurately describes her situation since one of her alter personalities may have written it, the Post-Standard reported.

The Syracuse jury deliberated for 40 minutes following a two-week trial.

“She got a full and fair hearing in court,” Roth said. “They decided there was no merit to her case.”

O’Neill’s lawyer could not be reached for comment.

“The University, from beginning to end, acted in good faith,” Roth said. “They tried and did the right thing.”


Archived article by Stephanie Hankin