I Am Anxious; Am I Covered Under ADA?

By Lehr Middlebrooks Vreeland & Thompson, P.C.

November 21, 2019

Anxiety is commonly discussed and self-identified in the work environment and elsewhere. An individual may suffer from anxiety for any number of reasons, some of which are not medical in nature. The question that was considered by the Middle District of Tennessee in the case of EEOC v. West Meade Place, LLP is to what extent someone who has a self-diagnosed anxiety disorder is protected under the ADA. (Oct. 22, 2019).

The EEOC alleged that the employee suffered from an anxiety disorder and was terminated by her employer for that reason. The Court rejected the EEOC’s arguments, concluding that the former employee could not prove that she was “disabled” as defined under the ADA. There are three definitions of disability under the ADA - the first is whether the individual has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits their ability to perform one or more major life activities. The second category is an individual who may not currently have a disability, but has a “record” of a disability. The third definition is “regarded as” disabled, where an individual has a current medical condition that results in the employer treating the individual as if he or she is disabled.

The Court concluded that the individual here was unable to prove that she had an actual disability under the ADA. While she did receive medication for anxiety from a prescribing physician, that physician testified that she wrote the prescription and came to the diagnosis of anxiety based on the employee’s representations that a previous doctor had so diagnosed her. The doctor had undertaken no real independent analysis of the question, and opined in deposition that the employee did not have a disability. Because the only records of disability were the prescriptions and an FMLA certification by the doctor above, the Court found that these were not records of disability. Finally, the Court found that these records and the employee’s own self-identification as having anxiety were not sufficient evidence to prove the employer regarded her as disabled (the employer having made no such designation or representation).

Anxiety, stress, and depression are terms which are often used conversationally, and not clinically, in the workplace.Sometimes these labels indicate true ADA disabilities. Other times, these labels are an expression of an emotional state. Employers should always avoid using diagnostic language or making unnecessary conclusions about an employee’s disability status, and should be mindful that self-diagnoses and sham-diagnoses do not automatically mean an employee is disabled. Finally, while the West Meade Place, LLP decision represents good law for employers, employers should be loathe to bar potentially qualifying employees from the rights and privileges of the ADA (i.e., reasonable accommodation) based on questions about the employee’s disability status.

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