An employee who was fired after asking to be reassigned to a role with less direct personal interaction as an accommodation for her social anxiety disorder has been allowed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to take her case to a jury. Jacobs v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, No. 13-2212 (March 12, 2015).
In January of 2009, Christina Jacobs was hired as an office assistant to the criminal division of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). In that role, Jacobs’s job consisted largely of microfilming and filing.
Less than a month after being hired as an office assistant, Jacobs was promoted to a position as one of 30 deputy clerks in the criminal division of the AOC. While all deputy clerks held the same title and job description, four or five also provided customer service at the division’s front counter. The remaining clerks performed jobs that did not require face-to-face interaction with the public, including filing and recordkeeping tasks.
In March of 2009, Jacobs began training to work at the front counter, but soon began to experience extreme stress and panic attacks. On or about May 5, 2009, Jacobs informed one of her supervisors that she previously had been treated for mental health issues and had been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. The supervisor relayed that information to the clerk of courts, Brenda Tucker.
On September 8, 2009, Jacobs sent an email to her three immediate supervisors, again disclosing her diagnosis and requesting, as an accommodation, that she be “trained to fill a different role in the Clerk’s Office and perhaps work at the front counter only once a week.” Jacobs was told that Tucker was the decision-maker on the issue, but was on vacation for three weeks and that nothing could change until her return.
During the three-week period, Jacobs made a request to use accrued leave. Even though Jacobs’s prior requests for leave had been granted, this request was denied.
Upon Tucker’s return from vacation on September 29, 2009, Jacobs was called into a meeting with Tucker and Jacobs’s three supervisors. At that meeting—which included no discussion of Jacobs’ request for accommodation—Jacobs was fired, and was told that she was not “getting it.” Jacobs also was told that Tucker had no position in which she could use Jacobs’s services; nothing further was said about Jacobs’s performance or any other work-related issue. During her employment, Jacobs had not been written up for any performance or disciplinary issue.
Jacobs then filed a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), received a favorable determination, and filed a federal lawsuit.
The federal district court granted summary judgment in favor of the AOC, finding that Jacobs’s social anxiety disorder was not a disability as a matter of law under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Analysis and Key Takeaways
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal, agreeing with the EEOC’s view that interacting with others is a major life activity and pointing out that the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) describes social anxiety disorder as a condition that “interferes significantly with the person’s normal routine, occupational . . . functioning, or social activities or relationships.” Therefore, the court concluded, under the ADA social anxiety disorder could be viewed as a disability.
The court’s opinion included a detailed analysis of what the Fourth Circuit considered to be the mistaken reasoning of the district court. While the opinion offered numerous analytical points—specifically, an analysis of social anxiety disorder as a per se disability under the ADA—the court raised two additional issues of which employers should take particular note.
First, the court pointed out—more than once in its analysis—the complete lack of documentation related to the performance issues that ultimately were used by the AOC to justify Jacobs’s firing (Jacobs “never received a negative performance review, evaluation, or written warning”), which discredited the AOC’s argument that Jacobs’ subpar performance was the basis of her firing. That lack of documentation doomed the AOC’s effort to use any performance or disciplinary issue as a valid reason for the ultimate discharge, and supported Jacobs’s argument that the reasons asserted were simply pretext for disability discrimination.
Second, the AOC’s lack of good faith effort to engage with Jacobs in any interactive process to identify a reasonable accommodation for her disorder—especially prior to the termination meeting—could allow a jury to find the AOC liable on Jacobs’s claim of disability discrimination. The requirement to engage in the interactive process is an essential provision of the ADA and one to which both employers and employees are obligated to adhere.
Maria Greco Danaher is a shareholder in the Pittsburgh office of Ogletree Deakins.