We All Have to Deal with People – But If You Can’t, You Might Be Disabled

To find protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), an employee must have a disability or mental impairment that “substantially limits” one or more “major life activities.”  In the recent case of Jacobs v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts et al., 4th Circ., No. 13-2212, March 12, 2015, the Fourth Circuit (Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina) reiterated the broad construction of these terms to include social anxiety disorder.

In Jacobs, a courthouse clerk was assigned several duties, including working the front counter.  Other employees in her same clerk position were assigned only filing and record-keeping duties, and were not required to work the front counter.

The clerk did not want to work the front counter.  She tried for some period of time, but she eventually told her supervisor that she suffered from social anxiety disorder and requested 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.”

Three weeks after her email was sent, the clerk was fired.  At the termination meeting the clerk was told that she was fired for poor performance (she wasn’t “getting it”).  The supervisor never mentioned the clerk’s request for an accommodation (limited obligiation to work the front counter).  Prior to the termination meeting, the clerk had not been written up for any performance or disciplinary issue.

The EEOC filed a lawsuit on behalf of the clerk, alleging that the courthouse discriminated against the clerk because of her disability, failed to provide a reasonable accommodation, and retaliated against her request by firing her. At trial, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the courthouse on each claim, finding that the clerk’s social anxiety disorder was not a disability as a matter of law.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed, finding that the clerk’s social anxiety disorder may be a disability under the ADA because it may have substantially limited the clerk’s ability to “interact with others.” The courthouse had argued that the clerk could not have been substantially limited in interacting with others because she “interact[ed] with others on a daily basis,” despite her disorder. The Court dismissed this defense stating “[a] person need not live as a hermit in order to be ‘substantially limited’ in interacting with others.”

Anxiety disorders are not always readily apparent. Just as in Jacobs, an employee may interact with customers or other employees, but that does not preclude an employee from claiming that anxiety substantially limits his or her ability to interact with others. These case stands as a stark reminder that when presented with an employee seeking accommodation for anxiety, an employer must make meaningful efforts to come up with reasonable accommodations for that employee.

Author’s contact info:
Meredith S. Campbell
Co-Chair, Employment and Labor Group, Shulman Rogers
[email protected] | T 301.255.0550 | F 301.230.2891