Tuesday, March 31, 2015

4th Circuit Holds Social Anxiety May Be Disability Under the ADA

As most employment lawyers are aware, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as the administrative agency entrusted as experts in enforcing the nation's anti-discrimination laws, often issues writings like compliance letters, enforcement guides, etc where they often take positions on how to apply the law in certain situations.  Toward that end the EEOC defined the “ability to interact with others” as a major life activity, bringing social anxiety disorder into the scope of protection afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  Recently the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed in Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, No. 13-2212 (4th Cir. Mar. 12, 2015).

The plaintiff, Christina Jacobs, had been promoted to be one of 30 deputy clerks where she was assigned to assist customers at the front counter, a job assigned usually to the most junior deputy clerks. While in this assignment, she began to experience extreme stress and panic attacks stemming from her previously-diagnosed social anxiety disorder.  Logically, Jacobs then went to her supervisor about her health issues, along with her social anxiety disorder.  The supervisor suggested Jacobs seek treatment and then informed her own supervisor about the issue.  Jacobs did seek treatment, but then sent an email to her three supervisors that once again disclosed her disability and asked for an accommodation. The employer never acted on the accommodation request and then terminated Jacobs three weeks later for allegedly poor performance and filed a charge with the EEOC claiming the firing was in retaliation for the accommodation request.  The lower district court granted summary judgment on all counts alleged.

In addition to the employer losing their argument that social anxiety disorder isn't a disability under the ADA, the employer also could have easily accommodated Jacobs given she was one of 30 deputy clerks with the same title and job description, where only 4-5 of those clerks were assigned to front desk work.  The other 25-26 clerks performed work that did not require interaction with the public as the front desk position was one more of seniority than it was of skill.  Thus, the likelihood of the employer showing undue hardship was weak.  

The employer also failed miserable in showing their legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Jacobs because they had next to no documentation of her alleged poor performance.  The witnesses for the AOC testified that Jacobs had performance issues and was a poor employee long before she received assignment to the front counter, but the AOC had no documentation to back any of it up.  However, it appears those witnesses were rather unpersuasive.

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