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

October 4, 2013
By Eric B. Meyer on October 4, 2013 7:00 AM | | Comments
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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.