Court holds that anxiety from possibly getting fired is an ADA disability.

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Let me tell you about a teacher in South Dakota. In 2010, she received a letter communicating concerns about her performance. Subsequent evaluations of the teacher’s classes noted several deficiencies. So, the school placed the teacher on a performance improvement plan.

It was right around this time that the teacher met with a physician’s assistant, who diagnosed the teacher with “anxiety and depression, likely stemming from her concerns about possibly getting fired.” 

So, at the teacher’s request, the physician’s assistant wrote a letter to the school seeking a laundry list of accommodations, including:

  • restructuring her job to include only essential functions if stressful situations continue to negatively impact her
  • encouraging her to walk away from stressful confrontations with supervisors; and
  • providing coverage if she becomes overwhelmed with stress from the work environment and needs to leave

The school responded to the full list of accommodation requests, agreeing to provide some, rejecting some, and requesting clarification as to others.

A few months later, after the PIP ended, the school recommended against renewing the teacher’s contract, delivering to her a “notice of his intent to recommend nonrenewal.” Shortly after receipt of the notice, the teacher took a medical leave of absence for the rest of the school year, after which her contract was not renewed.

The teacher then sued for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

What is a disability under the ADA?

The ADA requires employers to accommodate a disabled employee if, doing so, will allow that employee to perform the essential functions of her position without resulting in undue hardship for the employer. An employer who fails to discharge these obligations has violated the law. 

However, to make out a “failure to accommodate” claim, the employee most first establish that she has a “disability.” One example of a disability under the ADA is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual. Major life activities include, but are not limited to, “caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, . . . learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.” 

This includes conditions arising from the fear of possibly getting fired.

The burden of proving a disability is rather light. But could it even include anxiety and depression about possibly getting fired? According to this recent federal court opinion, yes:

When asked what activities of daily living Huiner [the teacher] was unable to perform, Buman [the physician’s assistant] stated she was unable to maintain her nutritional needs, had difficulty caring for her children, and had sleep pattern deficits. The medical records from Huiner’s appointments with Buman correspond to Buman’s testimony. Huiner’s difficulty maintaining her nutritional needs is further evidenced by her significant weight loss during that time period; she lost over thirty pounds from September 7, 2010, to June 29, 2011. Based on this evidence, the court finds Huiner has come forth with sufficient facts to make a prima facie showing that her anxiety constitutes a disability under the ADA. This is especially the case when considering the relaxed standards imposed under the ADAAA for determining what constitutes a disability.

Hear that? It’s the sound of litigation floodgates opening. 

And my pockets getting fatter.

Updated:
  • Alex

    Damn, you’d think half the country would be on sabbatical right now!

  • Tom

    Here is someone that is told if her performance does not improve her contract will not be renewed. Rather than find out where the performance was deficient and make the necessary improvements, she claims anxiety, seeks “medical help” and claims a disability. Hmmmm. Why should it be my fault if my performance in isn’t to your standards.

    • http://liquidio.net/ Thomas

      The problem is, she/he was probably under anxiety and depression before the threat of being terminated. It’s a REAL problem and if untreated can become worse and cause a downward spiral. Many Americans suffer from it every day without realizing it’s a medical condition.

      • http://www.theemployerhandbook.com/ Eric B. Meyer

        You are right, for ADA purposes, the cause of the disability is irrelevant. But, I wonder what reasonable accommodations would actually allow her to perform the essential functions of her job.

    • Proud mommy

      Anxiety is very real, and many people suffer from it. They don’t fake mental illness to get out of improving their work. They are people like you and I who want the stability of long-term employment, but have irrational panic at times that others wouldn’t. These things she was asking for may have been triggers for full blown panic attacks. It is a real thing, shame on you for making fun of mental illness.

  • teapartydoc

    Employers will end up having to build handicap ramps in their own brains.

  • Photog

    I have to side with the school on this one. The teacher was not able to perform her duties for which she was hired. And her anxiety resulted in her worrying about her poor performance that she caused. Also, the school has a responsibility to its students to provide a safe and productive learning atmosphere. It doesn’t sound like she was able to hold up her end of the contract. I recognize that anxiety is a real problem. Then she needs to find other employment that won’t exacerbate her condition. And guess who would be at fault if the teacher “loses” it one day because of her anxiety and harms any of her students? The parents will sue the school for putting an unstable teacher in the classroom. It’s a lose-lose for the school. Shame on that judge for making that decision.

  • asher2789

    sorry for commenting a year later – but how does this apply to NY? what if (hypothetically) your performance review includes some good and some bad, and a 3% raise, and then a few months later, they’re threatening to fire you for lateness (caused by a proven disability), and then after you provide proof of the disability, they fire you over “performance”?