United States: Don't Stress – Anxiety May Not Always Be A Disability Under The ADA

Last Updated: November 19 2019
Article by Daniel B. Pasternak

On October 22, 2019, a Tennessee federal district court dismissed a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") against West Meade Place LLP ("WMP"), a skilled nursing facility, after finding on summary judgment that the EEOC failed to establish that former WMP employee Carma Kean was disabled, as that term is defined under the ADA.

In EEOC v. West Meade Place LLP, the EEOC, acting on behalf of Ms. Kean, alleged that she had anxiety and that during "flare-ups" of this condition, she was unable to work. The EEOC alleged that WMP violated the ADA because it failed to accommodate Ms. Kean's condition by providing her with requested time off work, and also engaged in disability discrimination when it terminated Ms. Kean's employment.

In order to establish a prima facie case of a failure to accommodate or other disability discrimination claim, a plaintiff must first establish that the employee is or was disabled at the time of their employment. The ADA defines a disability to be either: 1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; or 2) having a record of such an impairment; or 3) being regarded as having such an impairment.

The EEOC argued that Ms. Kean's anxiety rose to the level of a disability under the first definition by relying in large part on a physician's note Ms. Kean provided to WMP that stated Ms. Kean "could not work" during her anxiety flare-ups. However, during the physician's deposition, he failed to provide any medical basis for his diagnosis that Ms. Kean had anxiety – instead, he appeared to rely merely on Ms. Kean's own representation that she had previously been diagnosed with anxiety by another physician. The physician also could not support his assessment that Ms. Kean could not work during flare-ups; when asked why he stated that she could not work, he responded that Ms. Kean had asked him to say that. The physician indicated he felt he could not "say no" to her request. When asked to define the symptoms of anxiety, the physician generally identified "nervousness" and "apprehension." The court noted that the physician did not testify that anxiety generally, or specifically in Ms. Kean's case, created any substantial limitations to a major life activity. Because of this, the Court found that the physician's note was insufficient to support the EEOC's claim that Ms. Kean's anxiety constituted a disability under the ADA.

Further damaging the EEOC's case was Ms. Kean's own testimony, in which she failed to identify any major life activities that were substantially limited by her anxiety. Instead, she testified that she did not have any such limitations, and had only one day when she could not work due to her condition. The EEOC asserted that the fact that Ms. Kean was prescribed medication for anxiety indicated that the condition was a disability. However, the court rejected this argument, indicating that this also did not establish that her condition caused a substantial limitation to a major life activity. In essence, the court appeared to draw a distinction between more commonplace or "garden variety" anxiety that can be uncomfortable, but not substantially limiting to major life activities, and more severe, potentially debilitating mental disorders.

The EEOC also argued that WMP terminated Ms. Kean's employment because it regarded her as being disabled due to her anxiety. To establish its "regarded as" ADA claim, the EEOC was required to prove that WMP took action against Ms. Kean based on a perceived impairment. The court noted that neither the employer's knowledge that plaintiff sought leave under the Family & Medical Leave Act nor plaintiff's own report to her employer that she had anxiety were enough to establish that WMP believed Ms. Kean was impaired. In fact, the court highlighted a supervisor's testimony stating that she, too, had anxiety, but that it was not, in fact, an impairment to her.

The ADA's broad, inclusive definition of the term "disability" – particularly after the ADA Amendments Act's passage in 2008 – make it understandable that employers are often overinclusive in categorizing employees as disabled under the ADA, particularly when dealing with employees' mental health or other conditions, the severity of which is not easily assessable. Although this case does not necessarily provide a bright line test to for employers to use, it does reinforce the principle that not all mental health diagnoses qualify as a disability. When working with employees who request accommodations due to conditions that are not self-evident, employers should require the employees to provide medical documentation that substantiates the severity of their condition, including what if any substantial limitations to a major life activity are caused by the condition, before concluding that the condition rises to the level of a disability under the ADA.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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