Court: Anxiety Over Possibly Getting Fired Is a Disability Under the ADA

By Eric B. Meyer

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.”

Accommodations the teacher requested

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 non-renewal.” 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 (Huiner v. Arlington School).

What is a disability under the ADA?

The American with Disabilities Act 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.”

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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.

“Sufficient facts … showing … a disability”

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 30 pounds from Sept. 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.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

You know that scientist in the action movie who has all the right answers if only the government would just pay attention? Eric B. Meyer, Esq. gets companies HR-compliant before the action sequence. Serving clients nationwide, Eric is a Partner at FisherBroyles, LLP, which is the largest full-service, cloud-based law firm in the world, with approximately 210 attorneys in 21 offices nationwide. Eric is also a volunteer EEOC mediator, a paid private mediator, and publisher of The Employer Handbook (www.TheEmployerHandbook.com), which is pretty much the best employment law blog ever. That, and he's been quoted in the British tabloids. #Bucketlist.

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2 Comments on “Court: Anxiety Over Possibly Getting Fired Is a Disability Under the ADA

  1. Wow…let me get this straight…she wasn’t doing well at her job, so they gave her a PIP, which stressed her out so she couldn’t do her job, so now they can’t fire her because of her “disability,” but if they hadn’t given her a PIP they probably couldn’t fire her without a lawsuit anyway? Or does this mean you should just avoid the potential of an ADA situation by not supplying a PIP and just fire people without the chance to improve and let the chips fall where they may? Like I said…wow.

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