Can Anxiety Caused by Potential Job Loss Constitute a Disability Under the ADA?


Since the passage of the amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), a common theme of discussion has been the degree to which the burden for demonstrating a disability has been decreased.  With these amendments, it is much easier for individuals to demonstrate that they suffer from a disability as defined by the ADA. However, a new case issued by the United States District Court for the Southern Division of South Dakota adds further fuel to this discussion by confirming how much easier it is to demonstrate a disability under the amendments to the ADA. In this case (Huiner v. Arlington School District, 11-4172-KES, Sept. 26, 2013) the employee, a teacher with the Arlington School District, was advised of concerns with her job performance starting in or about September 2010. Due to these concerns, Plaintiff was placed on a plan of assistance, which was implemented on or about December 20, 2012. This plan of assistance set out specific areas where improvement was expected and established a deadline of March 1, 2011 to achieve such improvement.

Prior thereto, on or about December 17, 2012, Plaintiff had met with her physician’s assistant regarding anxiety. At that time, Plaintiff was diagnosed with anxiety and depression likely stemming from her concerns about possibly getting fired. It was alleged that Plaintiff was unable to maintain her nutritional needs, was experiencing difficulty caring for her children and had sleep pattern deficits. Plaintiff lost over 30 lbs. between September 7, 2010 and June 29, 2011. In February, 2011, Plaintiff requested a number of accommodations from her employer. These accommodations were designed to ease Plaintiff’s anxiety and stress in the work place and included accommodations such as limiting the observations of her job performance to one 50 minute class per week, allowing her to play soothing music while working, planning for and allowing uninterrupted work time, providing coverage if she were to become overwhelmed with stress, and encouraging her to walk away from stressful confrontations with supervisors. Prior to this initial request for accommodations, there was some back and forth between the employer and Plaintiff regarding accommodations. However, ultimately, her employment was terminated when it was determined that she had not satisfactorily improved her job performance.

The Court determined that Plaintiff had demonstrated that she was suffering from a disability under the ADA. In so holding, the Court noted that her anxiety and associated panic attacks limited her ability to maintain her nutritional needs, care for her children, work and sleep. The Court also noted that Plaintiff’s allegations corresponded with her medical records and that her difficulty maintaining her nutritional needs was evidenced by her significant weight loss. On this basis, the Court confirmed that she had been able to make a prima facie showing that her anxiety constituted a disability under the ADA. The Court further noted that because she was disabled under the ADA, it was necessary for the employer to engage in the interactive process to determine the appropriate reasonable accommodation. In so ruling, the Court noted that Plaintiff’s simple act of requesting an accommodation required the employer to initiate the interactive process even if the accommodations requested by her were unreasonable and did not fall within the parameters of the ADA. Additionally, the Court also noted that there was a question of material fact as to whether the District had participated in good faith in the interactive ADA process when the decision to recommend termination was made just 14 days after the employer’s first participation in the interactive process.

Although this case is not in the Third Circuit and, therefore, is not controlling in the Third Circuit, this case is illustrative of the lowered burden established by the amendments to the ADA. It also presents an interesting fact pattern which could potentially be duplicated by other employees. Accordingly, we caution employers to be aware of this fact pattern as it is not implausible that other employees could  allege a disability based on stressors from within the workplace.