By Anne-Marie L. Storey, Esq.

In a significant new decision issued March 12, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a summary judgment for an employer on an employee’s claim that her “social anxiety disorder” is a disability entitling her to accommodation under the ADA. 

When the employee began her job as an office assistant in the criminal division of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, she worked primarily as a file clerk.  She was then promoted to a position that required customer service duties as well.  When she began training at the front counter, she experienced stress and panic attacks, especially when she was asked a question to which she did not immediately know the answer.  She notified her supervisor that she had previously treated for mental health issues and had been diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder.   Her supervisor advised her to seek medical treatment and ultimately notes of the meeting were placed in her personnel file.  No further action was taken until she raised the issue again with three immediate supervisors. In that contact, she asked for an accommodation in the form of a position with less direct personal interaction with customers.  Her supervisor was out of the office for several weeks and she was told nothing would change until she returned.  The employee requested to use leave time until that time but the request was denied.  When the supervisor returned, the employee was terminated.  There was no discussion of her request for accommodation.  She had never received any discipline or performance based criticism.   

She filed a charge of discrimination and pursued the case to federal court.   The federal court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer on the basis, among other things, that the social anxiety disorder was not a disability as a matter of law under the ADA.  However, on appeal, the 4th Circuit reversed the entry of summary judgment.  It agreed with the EEOC that “interacting with others” is a major life activity. It noted that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual describes social anxiety disorder as a condition that “interferes significantly with the person’s normal routine, occupational . . . functioning, or social activities or relationships.” Therefore, it determined that under the ADA, social anxiety disorder is a disability.  

In addition to the significance of the recognition of this condition as a disability, there were a few other issues to note in the way the situation was handled.  I’m sure you have already noted that the termination for alleged performance problems, including a claim that she had inappropriate outbursts, was troublesome given the lack of any documentation of such performance issues or related discipline.  I am also sure you have noted that the employer utterly failed to engage in any interactive process to address and attempt to identify a reasonable accommodation for the condition. 


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