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Social anxiety disorder is a disability protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act


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pogilvy

By Patrick Ogilvy


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has determined social anxiety disorder is a disability protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and an employer must provide reasonable accommodations to an employee afflicted with the disorder.

Interacting with people
A deputy clerk in the criminal division of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts suffered from social anxiety disorder. The clerk was diagnosed with the disorder when she was 18 years old. Shortly after being hired, the deputy clerk was trained to work at the front counter of the division, where she was assigned to work four days a week interacting with the public. Soon after beginning her work at the front counter, the deputy clerk began experiencing extreme stress, nervousness, and panic attacks, which she attributed to her social anxiety disorder. This was particularly true in situations where the deputy clerk was asked questions to which she did not immediately know the answer, which occurred often in her position behind the counter.

After a couple of months working behind the front counter, the deputy clerk informed her supervisor she had social anxiety disorder and did not feel healthy working at the front counter. The deputy clerk also informed her supervisor she received treatment for her condition while she was in college but was not currently receiving treatment. The deputy clerk’s supervisor encouraged her to seek treatment from a doctor, which she did. The supervisor advised the clerk of court about this conversation with the deputy clerk, and the clerk of court made some notes about the condition to place in the deputy clerk’s file. However, no other actions were taken.

Approximately four months later, the deputy clerk sent an email to her three immediate supervisors again disclosing her social anxiety disorder and requesting an accommodation in the form of filling a different role in the office. At the time, the clerk of court was out of the office on vacation. Once she returned, the clerk of court held a meeting with the deputy clerk and her supervisors, during which the clerk of court terminated the deputy clerk for not “getting it.” The clerk of court also claimed she did not have a need for the deputy clerk’s services. However, out of 30 total deputy clerks in the criminal division, only four or five of those deputy clerks provided customer service at the front counter. Most of the duties performed by the other deputy clerks did not require face-to-face public interaction. The deputy clerk then sued the Administrative Office of the Courts for disability discrimination, failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, and retaliation.

No remedy or retaliation
The trial court found the deputy clerk could not support her claims because it did not believe she suffered from a disability under the ADA. On appeal, the appeals court considered whether social anxiety disorder substantially limited one of the deputy clerk’s major life activities. The deputy clerk argued social anxiety disorder is a disability because it substantially limited her ability to interact with others. The Administrative Office of the Courts disputed whether “interacting with others” is a major life activity, despite an EEOC regulation specifically identifying it as such. The appeals court found the EEOC regulation was supported by the statute because a major life activity is defined to mean one that is “of central importance to daily life,” and the court found few activities more central to the human condition than interacting with others. Accordingly, the court found “interacting with others” to be a major life activity substantially limited by the deputy clerk’s social anxiety disorder. The court thus found the deputy clerk to be disabled, and sent the case back to the trial court for a trial on the merits.



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