Anxiety and the ADA

Q: An employee in my company has requested intermittent leave as an accommodation for what he claims is a debilitating “anxiety,” but he has no job performance issues and seems fine to me. Are we required to provide a reasonable accommodation under the ADA for anxiety?

A: The question of whether an employee’s anxiety constitutes a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is rather tricky for employers. Most people experience some level of anxiety on the job and in every day life, but in the absence of clear behavioral indicators, it may be difficult for employers to assess whether an employee’s anxiety rises to the level of a disability as defined by the ADA. However, as a recent decision from a federal court in the Middle District of Tennessee demonstrates, to enjoy the protections of the ADA, your employee’s accommodation request must be grounded on something more than his generalized claim that he has a “debilitating” anxiety disorder.

In EEOC v. West Meade Place LLP, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleged that the defendant, a nursing home, failed to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee who suffered from an anxiety disorder, and then fired her because of her disability.

The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability with respect to hiring, compensation, discharge, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. In order to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must show that (1) she is disabled, (2) she is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of a position, with or without accommodation, and (3) she suffered an adverse employment action because of her disability.

In West Meade Place, the employer argued that the plaintiff could not establish the first element of the legal standard—that she was disabled. Under the ADA, a “disability” is defined in three ways: (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one’s ability one or more of the individual’s major life activities of an individual; (2) a record of such an impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment. Reviewing the evidence in light of this definition, the court found that the plaintiff was unable to satisfy her prima facie burden and granted summary judgment to the defendant.

First, the plaintiff could not show that her condition substantially limited her ability to perform her job. The EEOC’s plan to rely on testimony from the employee’s physician on this point backfired during the physician’s deposition. After stating on an FMLA form that the employee could not work during her anxiety “flare-ups,” the physician admitted that, in lieu of a medical opinion, she signed the FMLA form simply because the employee asked her to do it. Given the scant medical evidence to support plaintiff’s medical condition, the court rejected the agency’s argument that one or more of the employee’s major life activities were “substantially limited” by her anxiety.

In addition, the plaintiff’s contradictory testimony undermined the EEOC’s position that the employee had a record of impairment. On the forms she completed at the outset of her employment, she indicated that she had used an anti-anxiety medication and affirmed that she had issues with anxiety. However, she also wrote on the forms that she had never been treated for anxiety. As such, the court found the onboarding documents failed to establish that the plaintiff had a history of anxiety of such severity that it substantially limited on or more of her major life activities.

Likewise, the EEOC’s argument that the plaintiff was regarded as having an impairment by the employer failed. The court explained that, rather than simply alleging that the employer was aware of her symptoms, the plaintiff must instead show that the employer regarded her as “impaired” within the meaning of the ADA. An employee’s statement to management that she suffered from anxiety may not be enough. As the nurse manager explained when asked whether she was aware that the plaintiff had a disability, just because an employee “said she had anxiety, that doesn’t make it a disability. I have anxiety. It’s not a disability.”

Given that the plaintiff could not meet the ADA’s definition of “disabled,” she failed to establish a prima facie case of either on either her discrimination or failure-to-accommodate claims.

By nature, anxiety is somewhat difficult to assess, and thus employers must take care when responding to an employee’s request for an accommodation for an anxiety condition. In the absence of supporting evidence, an employee’s bald assertion that he or she suffers from an anxiety disorder probably is not enough to meet the ADA standard. Thus, an employer should carefully analyze any documents provided by the employee’s health care provider to determine whether the diagnosis indicates that the anxiety amounts to a “mental impairment” as contemplated by the statute. Also, employers should conduct a thorough review of the employee’s file to ascertain whether the employee identified the medical condition at the outset of employment or afterwards, thereby putting the employer on notice. In addition, employers should take a holistic view of the employee’s overall engagement with the company to determine whether the company regarded the employee as disabled. As always, to mitigate the risk of liability, employers should thoroughly review the facts and available documents with an attorney who has experience in analyzing ADA issues, prior to denying an employee’s request for an ADA accommodation.

Rogers Stevens

California Supreme Court Decision Could Expand Standing For Website Accessibility Claims

Q.  Does a consumer need to actually try to buy a product or service at a store to have standing to sue under the ADA for failure to maintain an accessible website?

A.  Evolving case law regarding website accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and comparable state laws continues to impact companies across the country. In the past, courts have required plaintiffs to show that the allegedly discriminatory website prevented their full use and enjoyment of a connected brick-and-mortar location. More recently, however, courts have looked favorably on claims even absent such an alleged deprivation. A recent opinion from the Supreme Court of California not directly addressing ADA website compliance appears nevertheless to further cement this shift, allowing standing for discrimination claims regarding a website under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act based on an individual’s intent to use the website’s services in and of themselves. This shift further emphasizes the need for commercial website owners to ensure that their online content is accessible to the visually impaired in compliance with the widely adopted Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

For further information, click here.

Jeffrey M. Goldman, Tracey E. Diamond and Victoria D. Summerfield

Second Circuit Court of Appeals Recognizes Hostile Work Environment Claim Under the ADA

Q.  An employee at one of my company’s facilities in New York recently complained to his supervisor that his coworkers made fun of his disability. Can an employee with a disability file a “hostile work environment” claim under the Americans With Disabilities Act?

A.  On March 6, 2019, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the first time that hostile work environment claims are available to plaintiffs under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). With its decision in Fox v. Costco Wholesale Corporation, the Second Circuit joins the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and Tenth Circuits, which likewise have found that hostile work environment claims are cognizable under the ADA.

In Fox v. Costco, the plaintiff suffered from Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder, conditions which manifested in verbal tics and other behavioral issues.  He alleged that, following a change in management, he was subjected to a hostile work environment by a new manager, who reprimanded the plaintiff for his work on certain tasks that non-disabled individuals performed in the same way but were not reprimanded for.  Later, the employer disciplined the plaintiff following complaints from customers regarding his behavior, which included an incident where he told a customer that she was “the love of his life.”  After investigating these incidents, the employer suspended the plaintiff for several days and transferred him to another job with the same pay and benefits.

Even after the transfer, however, the plaintiff alleged that his new supervisor made harassing comments to him. In addition, his coworkers began mimicking his behavioral tics, allegedly taunting him with comments such as “hut-hut-hike,” a mocking reference to a behavioral tic in which plaintiff sometimes crouched like a football player to touch the floor before moving forward.  The plaintiff alleged that the employer’s managers witnessed these comments over a period of “months and months,” but failed to act.  After plaintiff had a panic attack at work one day, he went out on indefinite medical leave and did not return to work.

The district court granted summary judgment to the employer on the plaintiff’s claims for hostile work environment, disparate treatment, failure to accommodate, and retaliation under the ADA and New York State Human Rights Law. Regarding the hostile work environment claim, the district court found that the plaintiff failed to prove that the alleged conduct was sufficiently “severe and pervasive” because he offered no details regarding the persistence of the “hut-hut-hike” comments, such as how many times the comments were made per shift, week and/or month.  The district court also ruled that the conduct and comments at issue were not objectively hostile and abusive.

On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment with respect to the plaintiff’s claims for disparate treatment, retaliation, and failure to accommodate. However, the Second Circuit also found that the plaintiff offered enough evidence to present the claim to a jury to decide “whether the frequency and severity of the mockery rose to the level of an objectively hostile work environment.”  Specifically, the plaintiff’s testimony that his coworkers mocked his disability for months—in the presence of managers who did nothing to prevent the comments—was sufficient to defeat summary judgment.

The court based its decision on the plain language of the ADA, which prohibits employers from discriminating “against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to . . . terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” As the court explained, this language was borrowed from Title VII, and since the ADA “echoes and expressly refers to Title VII” and Title VII allows for a hostile work environment claim, the same standard should be applied to a hostile work environment claim under the ADA.

Having found that the ADA can serve as a basis for a hostile work environment claim, the court proceeded to analyze whether the plaintiff presented evidence that the alleged harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to meet the standard. The appeals court rejected the district court’s finding that the plaintiff was required to present specific evidence “regarding the number of times the comments were made per shift, week and/or month” in order to show that the harassment was pervasive.  In this respect, the Second Circuit explained, “[t]he district court demanded too much of [plaintiff].”  Instead, the plaintiff was required to demonstrate only that the conduct he complained about was “objectively abusive.”

In light of this decision, now may be a good time to emphasize to managers and supervisors that they must take action if they become aware of employees making inappropriate remarks in the workplace based on an individual’s protected status, including disability.

Rogers Stevens

New Jersey Employers May Be Required to Accommodate an Employee’s Use of Medical Marijuana Outside the Workplace

Q.  Now that medical marijuana is legal in New Jersey, does the Law Against Discrimination require employers to provide an accommodation for medical marijuana use?

A.  While New Jersey employers are not required to accommodate the use of medical marijuana in the workplace, they may be required to accommodate an employee’s off-duty use of medical marijuana outside of the workplace, according to a recent decision. On March 27, 2019, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed a lower court’s ruling that state law does not provide employment protections for medical marijuana users. Although the court affirmed that employers are not required to accommodate an employee’s use of medical marijuana in the workplace, the court found that failure to accommodate off-duty use of medical marijuana outside the workplace could give rise to liability under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD).

In Wild v. Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc., the plaintiff, a funeral director, alleged that he was discriminated against when the employer fired him for using medical marijuana, despite the fact that he had a prescription to use it to treat pain caused by cancer.  In 2016, the plaintiff was injured in a car accident while on the job, resulting in a trip to the emergency room.  At the hospital, he informed the treating staff that he had a license to use medical marijuana.  However, the physician in charge did not request a drug test based on an assessment that the plaintiff was not impaired at the time of the accident.

Despite the doctor’s assessment, the employer later requested that the plaintiff take a drug test, to which the plaintiff reluctantly agreed. After he failed the test, the plaintiff was terminated.  The employer first told the plaintiff that he was being terminated because the test revealed that he had drugs in his system.  However, the employer later sent a letter stating that the plaintiff was terminated not because of his use of medical marijuana, but rather because he failed to disclose his use of a medication which might affect his ability to safely perform his job duties, as required by the employer’s policy.

The plaintiff then filed suit, alleging that the employer violated the NJLAD by terminating his employment based on a positive drug test, given that he was prescribed medical marijuana by his doctor, as permitted by the New Jersey Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana Act (CUMMA). In granting the employer’s motion to dismiss, the trial judge determined that CUMMA carries no employment-related protections for licensed users of medical marijuana.  The lower court explained that the termination was justified based on a positive drug test and a violation of the employer’s drug use policy.

Reversing the lower court’s decision, the Appellate Division first rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the disability discrimination protections under CUMMA and the NJLAD were in conflict, pointing to the language in CUMMA providing that “[n]othing in this act shall be construed to require . . . an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace.” As the court explained, “[t]hese words are unambiguous; they require no interpretation and permit no deviation.”  The court emphasized that CUMMA “neither created new employment rights nor destroyed existing employment rights” that may be available to employees under other statutes like the NJLAD.

Next, the Court noted that the plaintiff did not claim that the employer failed to accommodate his use of medical marijuana in the workplace, but rather, that the employer failed to accommodate his off-duty use of medical marijuana.  As the court explained, even if CUMMA does not obligate employers to provide a reasonable accommodation for medical marijuana use in the workplace, such an obligation may arise under the NJLAD.  Given that the plaintiff did not request an accommodation to use medical marijuana in the workplace, the Appellate Division concluded that his NJLAD claim should not have been dismissed.  The Appellate Division reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings on the question of whether an employee’s off-duty use of medical marijuana should have been accommodated under the facts presented.

The Appellate Division’s decision in Wild v. Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc. indicates that, while CUMMA does not require employers to accommodate medical marijuana use in the workplace, the failure to accommodate a medical marijuana user, at least when the use is outside of the workplace and during non-work hours, could lead to liability under  the NJLAD.

At the very least, employers should exercise caution when taking an adverse employment action against an employee who has a prescription for medical marijuana following a positive test. Because drug tests can detect marijuana in a person’s body for some period of time after it is used, a positive test may reveal an employee’s use of marijuana during non-working hours.  This raises the possibility that, like in Wild, an employee who is not impaired at the time of a workplace accident could nevertheless test positive for marijuana use afterwards, based on use that occurred outside the workplace.  Given that the NJLAD may require an accommodation for an employee’s off-duty use of medical marijuana, employers should consult with legal counsel prior to disciplining or terminating an employee who tests positive for marijuana.

Rogers Stevens

In ADA Website Accessibility Cases, Remediation May Be a Successful Defense

Q.  What can I do to protect my company from lawsuits claiming that our website is not accessible to visually-impaired individuals?

A.  Companies, universities and other organizations around the country continue to face an onslaught of lawsuits brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) alleging that commercial websites cannot be appropriately accessed by visually impaired individuals. A recent opinion from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York provides a potential roadmap for companies to stave off litigation by taking action to remediate barriers to full website accessibility.

For full article, click here.

Jeffrey M. Goldman, Tracey E. Diamond, and Victoria D. Summerfield