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Employer's New Dilemma - Working With Others?

There are a vast number of employers who have had to deal with employee issues related, in some way, to an "employee disability". There are very few situations arising under a workman's compensation scenario that do not require the employer to make "reasonable accommodation" to an individual who is returning to work from a workman's comp injury and needs "work hardening". That is just one of the few issues that arises and exposes an employer to the breadth of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

As almost everyone is aware, in 2008, the ADA was amended with the intent of broadening the definition of "disability". In point of fact, as Congress clearly stated, it was the intent of the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act of 2008 to make it "easier" for people with disabilities to obtain protection under the ADA. The regulation, specifically 29 C.F.R. Section 1630.1, clearly established that "the primary objective of the attention in cases brought under the ADA should be on whether the covered entities (i.e. employers) have complied with their obligations and whether discrimination has occurred, not whether the individual meets the definition of a disability". Simply stated, it was the intent of Congress, through the amendments, to establish that determining whether or not an individual's impairment was a disability cognizable under the ADA should not demand extensive analysis and not be in the basis to find "no coverage under ADA". 

Under a very recent case (Jacobs v. North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, No. 13-2212, United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit - March 12, 2015), the breadth of these amendments is now taking shape. The Plaintiff in the above matter, Christina Jacobs, was initially hired as an Office Administrative Assistant in the Criminal Division of the North Carolina Administrative Offices of the Court and assigned the responsibility for microfilming and filing of documents. Approximately a month later, she was promoted to Deputy Clerk, and her list of tasks expanded to record hearings assignments, possible court assignments and front desk customer service. Approximately one month into her employment, Jacobs was required to begin training to work at the front counter, but informed one of her supervisors that she has previously been treated for mental health issues and had been diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder. She had been diagnosed, at the age of 10, with severe situation performance anxiety and at the age of 18, with "Social Anxiety Disorder". She requested, in an e-mail transmission to her three immediate supervisors (Deborah Excell, Jan Kennedy, and Melissa Griffin) that she be reassigned and trained in a different role, as an accommodation due to her Social Anxiety Disorder and not be assigned "front desk customer service". Simply stated, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals established that an individual who has an inability to interact with others or, in the alternative, suffers from anxiety when put in a situation of interacting with others may, in fact, be disabled.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM-5(2013)], Social Anxiety Disorder is a "marked and persistent fear of social or performance situations in which a person is exposed to unfamiliar people or scrutiny of others". The "avoidance and/or anxious participation and/or distress" of being placed in a feared social performance situation affects the individual and causes that person's normal routine to be impacted or disrupted from their normal occupational function. Hence, Jacob's concern about "front counter customer service".

None of the three (3) supervisors acted on Jacobs' request and, in fact, indicated that they had no authority to act on this matter and that the authority solely resided with the Chief County Clerk, Brenda Tucker, who was then on vacation and who had hired Jacobs and promoted her to Deputy Clerk. It should be noted that at no time during the term of her employment was Jacobs given any disciplinary action, performance review nor was she told that her job performance was below standard. When Ms. Tucker returned from her vacation, she and the three (3) supervisors met with Jacobs, on or about September 29, 2009, and Tucker informed Jacobs that she was being terminated because she was "not getting it" and that the county had "no place to use Jacobs' services". This communication was made to Jacobs even though she had never been written up for any disciplinary infraction or performance issue nor did her personnel file indicate any problems with her performance.

Needless to say, Jacobs filed a Charge of Discrimination alleging that she had been terminated due to her disability (Social Anxiety Disorder) and a favorable result emanated from the EEOC. While the initial legal proceedings were dismissed by the District Court (U.S. District Court, Eastern District of North Carolina) under a summary judgment request by the County, on appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court's dismissal and agreed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's view that "interacting with others" is a major life activity and that "social anxiety disorder as a condition" interferes significantly with the person's normal routine, occupational activities, functioning, and social activities and relationships and was a "disability" under the revised ADA.

While this type of decision gives a broad expanse to ADA coverage, and a potential of "great exposure" for any employer (how many jobs do not involve exposure to other people or scrutiny by others), it should also not go unnoticed that a factor in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision was their belief that the Clerk's Office was attempting to create "pretext" to justify their action in terminating Jacobs (i.e. create a "solid discipline basis to terminate"). As previously stated, during Jacobs' employment, there were no disciplinary actions showing lack of performance, nor, for that matter, any notes in her personnel file that established performance related problems. In point of fact, Ms. Tucker had promoted Jacobs after a month on the job! The fact that the county attempted to use performance related issues as a basis for the termination was probably a major factor in this case being decided in Jacobs' favor.

The author is aware of very few employment locations in which individuals are not required to interact with fellow employees or clients and this decision creates a fairly wide chasm for employer exposure. Social Anxiety Disorder is not rare and if faced with the issue, great care must be taken to avoid the "pitfalls of liability". Also, please note that, as in any situation dealing with employees, accurate and complete performance records are a must, especially if a person is, in fact, not doing all required job tasks. Remember, to be entitled to a "reasonable accommodation" under the ADA, the individual must be able to perform "essential job duties".

Questions? Contact Walter J. Liszka in the Chicago office at waliszka@wesselssherman.com or by phone at (312) 629-9300. 

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