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Anxiety over Reasonable Accommodation under the ADA for Social Anxiety Disorder

Employers might be just a bit more anxious after learning that the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (“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”). The Fourth Circuit, in the case of Jacobs v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts,[1] recently agreed with the EEOC that social anxiety disorder may be a disability for ADA purposes. For practical purposes, however, the important takeaway in this case is that reasonable accommodation requests should never be taken lightly and all decisions that adversely affect employees should come with ample documentation.

Tablet with diagnosis anxiety disorder and stethoscope.Christina Jacobs worked as an office assistant at the Administrative Office of the Courts (“AOC”) before being promoted to deputy clerk. She was then assigned to assist customers at the front counter, a job assigned usually to the most junior deputy clerks. She then began to experience extreme stress and panic attacks while working at the front counter, all symptoms of her previously-diagnosed social anxiety disorder. She explained her condition and her symptoms to her supervisor, discussing her history with the disability. Her supervisor suggested she seek treatment and relayed the conversation to her own supervisor, who made notes for Jacobs’s personnel file. Jacobs did seek treatment, but then sent an email to her three supervisors that once again disclosed her disability and asked for an accommodation. Jacobs was terminated 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 Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court’s decision in favor of the AOC, confirming the EEOC interpretation of the ADA is it pertains to the ability to interact with others as a major life activity.

While the Fourth Circuit’s holding that Social Anxiety Disorder can be a disability under the ADA is novel, there are at least two other takeaways for employers. First, Jacobs worked a position with the AOC where she was one of thirty clerks with the same title and job description, and only four to five of those clerks were assigned to front desk work. This assignment was generally based more on seniority than skill. The other clerks performed tasks that did not require interaction with the public, so the likelihood of a reasonable accommodation was strong. Employers can look to this as an example of how not to handle reasonable accommodation requests – not only did the employee clearly communicate to her supervisor her diagnosed disability and ask for a reasonable accommodation, it appears that the accommodation in question could have been granted easily, maybe even in the absence of an actual diagnosis. In short, the employer had no reason not to work with the employee to accommodate her disorder, and this may have had as much bearing on the outcome before the court as any other factor.

The second key point in the decision is the repeated failure by the AOC to document almost anything related to Jacobs. 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. Every instance of purported misconduct on the part of Jacobs – for instance, sleeping at her desk or an altercation with another employee – was conveyed through testimony in the case, and rather unpersuasively. At no point could the AOC produce a single piece of documentation to show that Jacobs had performance issues. Employers should look to this case as a study, again, in how not to conduct adverse employment actions, especially in light of a request for a reasonable accommodation. Every performance issue or work-related problem concerning an employee should be well-documented in that employee’s personnel file before taking adverse actions towards that employee. It is particularly striking that the allegations made by the AOC as to Jacobs’s performance in the job may have been sufficient to overcome her claim of retaliatory firing, but the AOC had no actual documented proof. The notes the AOC did have, however, were directly contradictory to the AOC’s testimony that they were not apprised of Jacobs’s disability.

If the holding in this case is making you as an employer anxious, contact the attorneys of McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, PLLC for advice on how to handle employee requests for accommodation, as well as the types of documentation all employers should keep for all employees. The Jacobs case is a cautionary tale of compliance for employers, but we can help prevent you from making the same mistakes.

This article is intended as a summary of state and federal law and does not constitute legal advice.

[1] Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, No. 13-2212 (4th Cir. Mar. 12, 2015):

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