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Tuesday, May 15, 2012
LIFELINES: LABOR PAINS
Supreme Court knocks down discipline of mentally ill employee
By HIFUMI OKUNUKI
Can a company discipline an employee for taking absence without leave if that worker could be suffering from mental illness? Just a few weeks ago, on April 27, the Supreme Court ruled against Hewlett-Packard Japan Ltd. in a case that posed precisely this question. The verdict illustrates the courts' thinking on a very modern ill of Japanese labor.
Let's take a look at the facts of the case.
The plaintiff began working for Hewlett-Packard Japan in 2000 as a systems engineer. He had no particular problems at work until around 2006, when he says his colleagues began doggedly spreading rumors about him. He became obsessed with the idea that the gossip was continuing, imagining he could hear them talking about him 24/7.
He could no longer concentrate on work and convinced his boss to let him change desks due to psychological stress.
The alleged harassment continued. He felt he had reached his limit and took paid leave, or yūkyū kyūka. (Labor Standards Law guarantees yūkyū kyūka to all workers.) He explained in detail the harassment he had undergone to the company and asked for an investigation.
Management refused and urged him to return to work as soon as possible. The plaintiff responded that he would not return to work until he was sure the problem had been resolved. After using up all his yūkyū kyūka, he took about 40 more days of unpaid leave.
The company invoked their shugyō kisoku work rules to ask him to resign (issuing a"resignation advisory") as a disciplinary measure, citing his absence without leave. Any disciplinary action against an employee, including dismissal, must be justified in reference to shugyō kisoku, which, along with an opinion letter from a majority union or an employee representative, must be registered with the Labor Standards Office.
The plaintiff sued Hewlett-Packard for the job and his wages, claiming the disciplinary action was null and void.
The lower court rejected his claim, but the Tokyo High Court in January 2011 accepted it, saying even if he was suffering from paranoia about his coworkers' gossiping, his leave was properly grounded in the shugyō kisoku stipulation permitting leave when it is "unavoidable due to illness or injury." This precludes any disciplinary action, so the advisory to resign was invalid.
The company appealed, but the Supreme Court upheld the ruling in a complete victory for the employee. The plaintiff is expected to stay on unpaid leave until he recovers mentally.
The ruling raises the bar for companies hoping to invoke disciplinary measures, particularly if the worker is suffering mental or psychological stress. The company failed to take appropriate measures to deal with the employee's problem, including having him undergo a psychiatric exam and granting leave to get treatment.
The judgment also places a high level of obligation on employers toward employees who complain of psychological illness. The number of such workers is increasing rapidly in Japan, with mental health becoming a major labor issue lately. Mental illness is an extremely delicate area, particularly because the symptoms are not always readily apparent among employees.
Employers have been put on notice not to make things worse by punishing workers already suffering mental anguish, and instead to try to fix the problem and help the ill get treatment.
This case is a crucial one for all workers, as it begins to answer the question of how to build a stable workplace that's healthy for both the heart and mind.
Hifumi Okunuki teaches constitutional and labor law at Daito Bunka University and Jissen Women's University, among others. She also serves as paralegal for Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union (Tozen). The attorney who represented the plaintiff in this case, Shoichi Ibuski, is the retained lawyer for Tozen. The columnist chose to highlight this case because it set a timely and important precedent and illustrates the courts' evolving thinking about harassment and mental stress. On the third Tuesday of each month, Hifumi discusses a famous case in Japan's legal history to illustrate an important principle in labor law. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to email@example.com