Is Social Anxiety a disability under the Americans With Disability Act (ADA) and its Amendments (ADAA)?

Is Social Anxiety a disability under the Americans With Disability Act (ADA) and its Amendments (ADAA)?

In the recent case of Jacobs v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts the 4th Cir. Court of Appeals was confronted with this issue.

The employee who was an office assistant was promoted to a deputy clerk. Her duties included microfilming and filing. Four or five of the 30 deputy clerks were also assigned to back-up customer service at the front counter. When the employee began training at the front counter, she experienced extreme stress, nervousness, and panic attacks. She explained to management that she had social anxiety disorder (with a past medical treatment i). She requested as an accommodation to handle a different task or only work at the counter one time per week. She was ultimately terminated she claimed because she would not work at the front counter.

She filed suit under Americans With Disability Act (ADA) and its Amendments (ADAA). Her employer filed a motion to dismiss the claim (Motion for Summary Judgment) in part based on the allegation that the employee did not have a disability. The employee appealed the dismissal to the 4th Cir. that ruled that the District Court was wrong in dismissing the case because a jury could conclude that the employee’s social anxiety disorder substantially limited her in interacting with others. Rejecting the employer’s assertion that employee could not be substantially limited in the major life activity of “interacting with others” because she “interact[ed] with others on a daily basis,” “routinely answered inquiries from the public at the front counter,” “socialized with her co-workers outside of work,” and engaged in social interaction on Facebook, the Fourth Circuit held “[a] person need not live as a hermit to be ‘substantially limited’ in interacting with others.” The court cited the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of social anxiety disorder as including not just those who must avoid situations due to the condition, but also those who endure them with intense anxiety. “At a minimum, [employee’s] testimony that working at the front counter caused her extreme stress and panic attacks creates a disputed issue of material fact on this issue.” Therefore the employee was allowed to proceed to court and try and prove her case to a jury.

For El Paso wrongfully terminated employees, this case has some value but since El Paso, Texas is not in the jurisdiction of the Fourth Circuit (we are in the Fifth Circuit which is much harsher in its acceptance of employee’s rights) its value is somewhat limited. However it goes to show that the Definition of Disability under the Americans With Disability Act (ADA) and its Amendments (ADAA) is broad and Courts and Arbitrators should not be throwing out cases based upon whether an employee has a disability or not.

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