Anxiety and the ADA

Anxiety disorders affect millions of Americans every year. It's time for employers to recognize their potential to make the workplace a more comfortable environment for everyone.

Christina Jacobs had suffered from mental illnesses since childhood. She was diagnosed with “severe situational performance anxiety” when she was ten. Two years later, she was hospitalized for threatening to harm herself and others. During her hospitalization, she was diagnosed with mood disorder, and prescribed antidepressants. When she was 18, she was diagnosed with “social anxiety disorder,” for which she has been “treated intermittently by several physicians.”

Social anxiety disorder is characterized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as a disorder in which a person “has significant anxiety and discomfort about being embarrassed, humiliated, rejected, or looked down on in social interactions.” The APA goes on to list common symptoms of social anxiety disorder, including “extreme fear of public speaking” and “meeting new people.”

In 2009, Jacobs was hired by Brenda Tucker, the elected New Hanover County Clerk of Court, to perform the duties of an office assistant, such as microfilming and filing, in the criminal division of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). Within a month, Jacobs was promoted to the position of deputy clerk. Out of the 30 deputy clerks working in the criminal division at the time of Jacob’s employment, only four or five of the deputy clerks provided customer service at the front counter.

“Jacobs soon began to experience extreme stress, nervousness, and panic attacks…She became particularly panicked when she was asked a question to which she did not immediately know the answer—a common occurrence when working behind the counter.”

As one of the newest deputy clerks, Jacobs soon began training to work at the front counter, which included interacting with customers four days a week. As one could imagine, customer service in the field of criminal law is rarely easy, but for someone with social anxiety, it can be overwhelming. According to a court opinion, “Jacobs soon began to experience extreme stress, nervousness, and panic attacks…She became particularly panicked when she was asked a question to which she did not immediately know the answer—a common occurrence when working behind the counter.”

Jacobs eventually told her supervisor that she had social anxiety disorder, which was greatly interfering with her work at the counter. Her supervisor recommended she seek treatment from a physician, and Jacobs took this advice, following up with the physician who had previously treated her for social anxiety. Despite treatment, Jacobs’ social anxiety continued to affect her work at the service counter. A few months later, Jacobs sent an email to her immediate supervisors in which she again disclosed her disability and requested that she be “trained to fill a different role in the Clerk’s office.” Jacobs was told her accommodation request could only be considered by Brenda Tucker—the very person who had hired her; unfortunately, Tucker was out of the office for a three-week vacation.

Upon Tucker’s return, Jacobs was called into Tucker’s office for a meeting. Assuming the meeting was about her accommodation request, Jacobs brought a small personal audio recorder and recorded the meeting. Jacobs noticed a printout of her email on the table, but Tucker did not acknowledge it. Instead, she told Jacobs that she was being fired because she was not “getting it” and because Tucker did not “have any place [that she could] use [Jacob’s] services.” It should be noted that Jacobs was never written up or disciplined for a work performance issue while she was employed by the AOC. On trial, however, the AOC alleged (without documentary evidence) that she “was a slow worker, impermissibly disclosed information to members of the public, and had outbursts with coworkers and supervisors.”

After being fired, Jacobs properly filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and later received a favorable determination. The Department of Justice then issued Jacobs a “Right to Sue” letter. Jacobs filed suit against the AOC, as well as Tucker’s successor in her official capacity as clerk of court, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Her complaint alleged five causes of action, including:

(1) disability discrimination under the ADA;

(2) failure to provide reasonable accommodation under the ADA; and

(3) retaliation under the ADA.

The district court granted summary judgment to the AOC on all counts, finding Jacobs was not disabled “as a matter of law” and therefore, she had “failed to establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination and failure to grant a reasonable accommodation.” In regards to the retaliation allegation, the district court found that there was no evidence Tucker knew of Jacobs request for an accommodation when she decided to fire Jacobs; therefore, Jacobs had failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation.

On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that even when read in the light most favorable to the AOC, the district court’s key factual findings rested on evidence directly contrary to the evidence Jacobs presented.

“Few activities are more central to the human condition than interacting with others.”

The Fourth Circuit referenced “disability” as defined by the ADA as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The court also referenced ADA regulations, which identified “interacting with others” as a major life activity. The court noted, “[f]ew activities are more central to the human condition than interacting with others.”

The court held Jacobs created a genuine issue of material fact as to the reason she was fired. The court noted Jacobs was fired “just three weeks after requesting an accommodation” and that this “close temporal proximity” was sufficient to establish “a disputed issue of fact as to the causation element of the prima facie case.”

The court utilized a two-part analysis for her failure to accommodate claim:

(1) whether the specific accommodation requested was reasonable; and

(2) Had the AOC granted the accommodation, could Jacobs perform the essential functions of the position?

The court found Jacobs’s request to be reasonable because she “merely asked that her employer change which deputy was assigned to which task.” As for the second prong, the court held there was a genuine issue as to whether Jacobs could perform all the essential functions of the position of deputy clerk. Therefore, summary judgment was not warranted on this claim.

The Fourth Circuit reversed in part the district court’s order granting summary judgment against Jacobs and remanded for trial of her disability discrimination, retaliation, and failure to accommodate claims.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States.

Christina Jacobs’ story is important because she is one of the 40 million adults in the U.S. living with an anxiety disorder. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. The five major types of anxiety disorders are:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder;
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD);
  • Panic disorder;
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); and
  • Social phobia/social anxiety disorder.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports while occasional anxiety is a normal part of life, for a person with an anxiety disorder, “the feelings can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships.” The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) has also explicitly included anxiety disorders in the ADA’s definition of “disability.”

Because anxiety disorders are so prevalent in today’s society, it is likely an employer could face a request to accommodate an anxiety disorder under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).

The ADA makes it unlawful to discriminate in all employment practices, including but not limited to, hiring, training, pay, and lay-offs. It is a violation of the ADA for a qualified employer to fail to provide a reasonable accommodation to a qualified individual with a disability, “unless to do so would impose an undue hardship on the operation your business.” In other words, unless the accommodation would require significant difficulty or expense, an employer should try to accommodate. If an employer is aware an applicant or employee has an anxiety disorder possibly requiring accommodation, the employer may want to discuss potential accommodations. The employer is NOT allowed to ask the individual about the severity of her anxiety, or require that she take a medical examination to “prove” her alleged disability.

Perhaps the best thing an employer can do when they become aware that an employee or applicant has an anxiety disorder is to have an open mind. Anxiety disorders are more than just a perceived “propensity for stress.” These disorders can be severely limitating. Although living with an anxiety disorder may be difficult, individuals with anxiety should still be given the opportunity to live up to his or her employment potential. Whether it’s allowing the former soldier with PTSD to have a quieter office, or removing a deputy clerk with social anxiety from the customer service counter, employers have the ability under the ADA to make the workplace a better environment for everyone, including the millions of Americans living with anxiety.

Avatar photo
About Lizzie Yelverton, Editor-in-Chief (10 Articles)
Lizzie Yelverton is a third year law student and serves as Editor-in-Chief for the Campbell Law Observer. She grew up in the small farming town of Eureka, NC, before moving to Raleigh to attend North Carolina State University. In 2015, Lizzie graduated from NC State with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in Philosophy. The year following her first year of law school, Lizzie worked as an intern for Senator Floyd B. McKissick, Jr. in the North Carolina General Assembly. Lizzie is the Public Relations Chair for Women in Law, as well as a member of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Campbell Law Innocence Project. Over the summer, Lizzie served as a law clerk at the law office of Baddour, Parker, Hine, & Hale, P.C.