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Fourth Circuit Says Social Anxiety Disorder Is ADA Disability

    Client Alerts
  • March 20, 2015

The ADA Amendments Act substantially broadened the definition of protected disabled persons under federal law. Prior to ADAAA, federal courts routinely dismissed disability discrimination claims on the basis that the claimed impairment was not recognized as a qualifying disability. Last week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) demonstrated the breath of coverage of medical conditions under the ADA.

In Jacobs v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, the plaintiff was a deputy courthouse clerk who had been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder (SAD). She claimed that her mental illness prevented her from working at the courthouse front counter, where she would have to deal with members of the public. She requested an accommodation that would excuse her from these part-time duties. According to the plaintiff, the clerk of court refused this request, and terminated her for alleged performance issues shortly after she made the accommodation request. She sued, claiming failure to provide a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, and retaliatory termination.

The federal district court granted summary judgment to the employer, concluding that the plaintiff was not a qualified individual with a disability. It accepted the employer’s argument that the plaintiff had failed to demonstrate that she had experienced any significant level of anxiety or other psychiatric impairment while working at the courthouse. The district court discounted the plaintiff’s testimony regarding her SAD diagnosis by medical professionals.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed with this conclusion, reversing the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims and remanding the matter for jury trial. The Fourth Circuit stated that the district court had fundamentally misread ADAAA. In addition to ignoring her medical testimony, the trial court did not follow ADAAA’s direction that the question of whether a plaintiff suffers from a qualifying disability is only subject to a perfunctory analysis. SAD qualifies as an ADAAA disability because it impairs a person’s ability to interact with others. The plaintiff was not required to demonstrate severe anxiety problems that manifested themselves at work or in other settings.

Employers facing ADA claims will not prevail based on most arguments that the plaintiff’s diagnosed medical condition is not severe enough to qualify as an ADA disability. Virtually any physical or mental impairment can constitute an ADA disability, even if the condition does not manifest itself at work. The employer’s defense to the disability discrimination claim needs to focus on the substantive disparate treatment or failure to accommodate claim, and not the threshold qualification issue.