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Court Rules Interacting With Others is a Major Life Activity Under the ADA

By:  R. Eddie Wayland, TCA General Counsel

A federal appeals court recently ruled that “interacting with others” is a “major life activity” under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This ruling is significant because it opens the door (even wider) to employees qualifying as “disabled” under the ADA. This case also brings into focus the need for employers to document all disciplinary and performance issues of their employees.

Background of the Case

The employee worked as a deputy courthouse clerk in North Carolina. The employee suffered from social anxiety disorder. The employee was assigned to work at the criminal division’s front counter four days per week. Working the front counter required face-to-face interaction with the public on a regular basis. The employee experienced extreme stress, nervousness, and panic attacks while working at the front counter.

The employee told her supervisor about her anxiety condition, and requested that she be transferred to position that did not require as much time at the front counter. Shortly thereafter, the employee was terminated from her position. The employee was told that she was fired because she was not “getting it” and because her supervisor did not “have any place [that she could] use [the employee’s] services.” The employee had never been written up for any disciplinary or performance issue. The employee subsequently brought a claim for disability discrimination pursuant to the ADA.

Legal Action

The trial court ruled in favor of the employer. In its decision, the trial court ruled that the employee did not fit the ADA’s definition of “disabled.” The employee appealed. The appeals court ruled that the trial court erred in its determination that the employee was not disabled.

The appeals court noted that the ADA defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The ADA provides examples of major life activities such as speaking, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. The employee argued that she was substantially limited in the major life activity of “interacting with others.” Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken the position that “interacting with others” is a major life activity, the employer argued to the contrary.

After reviewing the issue, the appeals court deferred to the EEOC. The court remarked that “[f]ew activities are more central to the human condition than interacting with others,” and that “[i]f ‘bending’ and ‘lifting’ are major life activities, . . . it is certainly reasonable for the EEOC to conclude that interacting with others falls in the same category.” The appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision and sent the case back to the lower court for a trial. 

Takeaway

Moving forward, employees with social interaction anxieties can rely on this case to argue that they are “disabled” under the ADA. Employers should be mindful of this case, and the broad scope of conditions that may fall within the scope of the ADA and similar state disability laws. The employer here made no efforts to engage in an interactive process with the employee regarding her condition and possible accommodation. Additionally, the employer in this case failed to document the performance issues it later claimed the employee was having. This case highlights the need to document disciplinary and performance issues as they occur. Taking an adverse employment action against an employee without supporting documentary evidence of disciplinary or performance issues leaves employers vulnerable to discrimination claims like the one here.

R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow.  You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at rew@kingballow.com.  The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.

June 9, 2015

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