On Tuesday 22 October 2019, a Tennessee federal judge rejected a legal action brought by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in which it claimed a nursing home failed to accommodate an employee with anxiety. Finding that the EEOC failed to show the employee’s anxiety qualified as a disability, this decision offers hope to employers faced with requests for accommodation where the employee claims generalized anxiety.
In January 2018, the EEOC brought a lawsuit pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), against The Health Care Center at West Meade Place (the employer). Specifically, the EEOC claimed the employer ignored Carma Kean’s (the employee’s) request to go on intermittent leave from her laundry technician job, and terminated her employment after she requested a reasonable accommodation for her anxiety disorder.
In its motion for summary judgment, the employer contended the employee never claimed that she had a disability, or that anxiety was the reason for her accommodation request. The EEOC argued the employee’s testimony was consistent with her doctor’s conclusions that she could potentially need a few days off to deal with her anxiety. The EEOC also argued the employee had a ‘record of impairment’ that was provided to the employer at the start of her employment.
Rejecting both of the EEOC’s arguments, the court found the employee’s testimony ‘wholly lacking in support for a finding that her anxiety rose to the level of a mental impairment that substantially limited a major life activity.’ Ultimately, US District Judge William L. Campbell Jr. granted summary judgment, saying the EEOC failed to make the case that the employee’s anxiety disorder rose to the level of a disability to trigger the employer’s obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
Employers’ bottom line
Although, this decision provides guidance to employers facing claims of anxiety, it does not shield employers from ADA claims. Rather, claims must be reviewed carefully to determine if the medical issue presented constitutes a disability under the ADA. If it does meet the criteria, employers must engage in the interactive process to determine if a reasonable accommodation, including an intermittent or reduced scheduled leave, may be available.