Anxiety Over the ADA

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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is designed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in the workplace.  Under the ADA, an employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability if the employee requests an accommodation.  Employers should take note of a recent decision that includes a new class within the definition of disability.  In Jacobs v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts,  the court reversed the district court and found that social anxiety disorder is a protected disability under the ADA.

The case originated when Jacobs, a former employee, brought suit against the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) for disability discrimination, retaliation and failure to provide a reasonable accommodation after she was fired from her position as a deputy clerk.   At the time of Jacobs’s employment,  there were 30 deputy clerks employed by the AOC, but only a handful of the clerks provided customer service at the division’s front counter while the rest of the clerks were assigned to other tasks that did not require face-to-face interaction with the public.  Jacobs was one of the clerks selected and trained to work at the front counter.  In this position, Jacobs soon began to experience extreme stress and panic attacks, which she attributed to her previously diagnosed social anxiety disorder.

Jacobs eventually informed her supervisor of her diagnosed anxiety and advised that she did not feel healthy while working at the front counter.   Her supervisor encouraged her to see a doctor and relayed this information up the chain of command.   Several months later, Jacobs again informed her supervisor of her disorder and this time requested an accommodation – that she be  “trained to fill a different role in the Clerk’s Office and perhaps work at the front counter only once a week.”

Shortly thereafter, Jacobs was called to a meeting with her supervisors.  However, instead of discussing the accommodation as she had anticipated, she was fired from her position because she was not “getting it.”

After receiving a favorable determination on her EEOC charge, Jacobs filed a federal court lawsuit. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer finding that Jacobs was not disabled as a matter of law.   The Fourth Circuit reversed, siding with the EEOC’s view that interacting with others is a major life activity.   The court noted that “[f]ew activities are more central to the human condition than interacting with others,” and that identifying “interacting with others” as a major life activity comparable to “caring for oneself,” “speaking,” “learning,” and “communicating” advances the broad remedial purpose of the ADA.

The court’s opinion highlights two important points that employers should always keep in mind when dealing with any type of alleged disability.  First, documentation is critical and is necessary to support a valid reason for discharge and rebut any allegations of pretext.  Second,  employers have a good-faith duty “to engage [with their employees] in an interactive process to identify a reasonable accommodation.”  Failure to engage in such discussions can be evidence of bad faith.