You may not be familiar with the formal diagnostic term, Personality Disorders, but as a practicing attorney, you undoubtedly have encountered individuals with these conditions. It’s a fair bet that most of those encounters ended unpleasantly. For the plaintiff attorney, these are the clients who come in with a convincing and impassioned recitation of all the wrongs they have suffered in life or the workplace, but as discovery proceeds, you find the factual basis for their allegations appears thinner and thinner, and there may be a history of similar problems. These are the clients for whom there is no such thing as a reasonable or fair settlement offer. Instead, they are determined to have their “day in court”, and it is not unusual for them to fire you (and a few other attorneys) on the road to trial.
For the defense attorney, individuals with personality disorders appear not only as plaintiffs, but also sometimes among the individuals you are called on to defend. These are the managers who persist in problematic behavior that leaves the company vulnerable to lawsuits and simply cannot get the message that their behavior needs to change. You may also find them among the company executives who are the decision makers about any litigation, who are just as determined to have their day in court. No matter how unfavorable the fact scenario may be, they are utterly convinced that they did nothing wrong, and turn a deaf ear to your advice that they settle the case rather than risk taking it to trial.
These are just a few of the perplexing dilemmas that confront us when dealing with individuals who have serious personality disorders. All of us have identifiable personality traits that represent our characteristic ways of behaving, relating to, and thinking about the world and ourselves. It is only when these traits become inflexible and maladaptive that they constitute personality disorders. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV-TR), the essential feature of a personality disorder is an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior, outside the individual’s cultural norms, that is evident since early adulthood, is rigid and unchanging, and results in significant distress or impairment.
Most of the problems we think of as psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse, are identified in the DSM under Axis I. These clinical problems generally lead individuals to seek mental health treatment. Personality disorders, by contrast, are diagnosed on Axis II, and represent an underlying long-term pattern that pervasively affects many aspects of an individual’s life and functioning.
However, the formal definition does little to capture the highly dynamic nature of personality disorders, and the ways in which these conditions often create the very problems that lead an individual into litigation. Noted personality theorist, Theodore Millon, described this process quite eloquently: “Pathological personality patterns are themselves pathogenic; that is, they generate and perpetuate existent dilemmas, provoke new predicaments, and set into motion self-defeating sequences with others, which cause their already established difficulties not only to persist, but to be aggravated further.”
Attorney and social worker Bill Eddy, puts it more simply: “Personalities drive conflict.” Much of this derives from the fact that individuals with personality disorders characteristically deny responsibility for their problems, lack insight into their own shortcomings, and thus chronically blame others for the difficulties they encounter in life, and at work.
From this perspective, we can see how personality disorders can play a central role in litigation. In the employment arena, for example, litigation almost always starts with an employee who is unhappy with some action or decision on the part of the employer. For an employee with a personality disorder, the problem can never, by definition be his or her fault, so any criticism or disappointing decision cannot possibly be fair, reasonable, or understandable. Instead, it must be the result of some animosity or prejudice directed against the individual. Similarly, an employer or manager with a personality disorder cannot acknowledge the possibility of any wrongful conduct on his or her part. Therefore, any employee who files a racial discrimination, sexual harassment or other type of claim must be lying, psychologically disturbed, or simply “in it for the money”.
These are but a few examples of how personality disorders can create, shape, and ultimately drive the litigation process. It is estimated that between 5 and 15% of adults in the United States suffer from a personality disorder. Therefore, an understanding of these perplexing conditions is a valuable asset to the practicing attorney.