Dental and Medical Counsel Blog

Disability, Anxiety, and ADA Compliance

January 8, 2020
Is Anxiety a Disability Under ADA

People with disabilities, including those who have a physical, sensory, cognitive, or mental impairment are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA covers a variety of areas, including all aspects of employment — reviewing applications, interviewing, hiring, training, promotion, salary, and termination, as well as employee benefits and workplace privileges.

The ADA pertains to all private employers, state and local government employers, employment agencies, and labor unions. It does not cover employers with less than 15 workers, the federal government, private clubs, or Native American tribal nations.

Under the ADA, a covered employer is prohibited from making adverse employment-related decisions based on an individual's disability. Furthermore, in some cases, an employee with a disability may require an employer to make modifications in the workplace. Under the ADA, these modifications are referred to as reasonable accommodations.

What Are Reasonable Accommodations Under The ADA?

Reasonable accommodations refer to reasonable changes made in the workplace, or in the way the work is customarily performed, to enable a person with a disability to:

  • Enjoy equal employment opportunity in the application and selection process; 
  • Perform the essential functions of the job; or
  • Enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.

Examples of reasonable accommodations include:

  • Modifying the individual’s work schedule
  • Reassigning the individual to a vacant position that he or she is qualified to perform
  • Making the facilities accessible to the individual and removing barriers to entry and movement
  • Providing readers and/or interpreters for the individual
  • Modifying exams, training materials, or policies to accommodate the individual
  • Providing or modifying equipment
  • Etc.

A reasonable accommodation is required to be made for a covered disabled individual unless the accommodation would pose an undue hardship on the employer. Undue hardship is defined as any accommodation that would involve significant difficulty or expense.

Is a Person Suffering from Anxiety Covered Under the ADA?

It depends. For a person to be covered under the ADA, the individual must fit into one of the following categories:

  • Have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of life's major activities;
  • Have a record of physical or mental impairment; and/or
  • Be regarded as having a physical or mental impairment

Most individuals have experienced some sort of anxiety at one point or another, be it in the workplace or in their everyday lives. However, anxiety doesn't rise to the level of a disability unless it limits a person’s ability to cope, perform the activities of daily living, interact with the world around them appropriately, or when the symptoms begin to cause them significant distress.

These behavioral indicators can be difficult to detect clinically. Furthermore, without the support of clear behavioral indicators and/or medical documentation, it can be extremely difficult for an employer to know if an employee’s anxiety qualifies as a disability as defined by the ADA.

The EEOC vs. West Meade Place LLP

Recently, whether or not anxiety qualifies as a disability and hence qualifies an employee for protection under the ADA, was dealt with in the case of EEOC vs. West Meade Place LLP. In this case, a court dismissed the disability discrimination lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the employer West Meade Place LLP, who fired an employee after being informed that they suffered from self-diagnosed anxiety attacks.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, Nashville Division held that an employee's request for reasonable accommodation must be based on more than just his or her own claims of having a "debilitating anxiety disorder." Although this ruling supports the idea that not every claim of a mental health condition will qualify as a disability, it should still not be used as a bright-line test for employers to deny a reasonable accommodation in the same or similar cases.

What Does This Mean for Employers?

When responding to accommodation requests grounded in disabilities, such as anxiety, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, and other mental or physical health conditions that may not be visibly evident but may still be protected under the ADA, employers should require medical documentation that substantiates the condition. Furthermore, an employer must carefully examine any documentation provided by the employee and consult with an attorney who has significant experience with issues regarding the ADA before accepting or denying an employee's request for reasonable accommodation.

As an employer, if you fail to comply with the ADA with regard to an employee with a mental or physical disability, you may be in violation of the law. Moreover, you may be subject to a lawsuit filed by the aggrieved employee and may ultimately be required to hire or rehire the individual, transfer them, reimburse them for money lost due to your actions, and compensate them for pain and suffering.

Contact a knowledgeable employment attorney to learn more about your rights and obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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