Interacting with the Public is a Disability?

April 28, 2015

A recent decision from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has opened the door for a lawsuit by an employee claiming that she suffered from a “social anxiety disorder” which impacted her ability to have personal interaction with others. In a decision involving the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, an employee has claimed discrimination because she suffered from a disorder that impacted her ability to work with the public and provide customer service at the front counter of the Office. 

In this decision, Court of Appeals allowed the case to proceed to trial and was very critical of the Federal District Court decision that granted summary judgment for the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. In its decision, the Court of Appeals criticized the Administrative Office of the Courts for failure to acknowledge the disabling condition suffered by the employee and failing to engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine whether reasonable accommodations could be provided for her “social anxiety disorder.” 

The important aspect of this decision is that the Court of Appeals agreed with the EEOC that “interacting with others is a major life activity” for which protection must be provided in the form of an accommodation if an employee cannot engage in such activity without restriction or limitation. The Court of Appeals also acknowledged that the recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) describes social anxiety disorder as a condition that “interferes significantly with the person’s normal routine occupational… functioning, or social activities or relationships.” Under this analysis, the Court of Appeals held that social anxiety disorder is a disability and must be accommodated by an employer.

As this case proceeds to trial, the Administrative Office of the Courts will have to show why it failed to engage in an interactive process with the employee to discuss the physical and mental limitations the employee experienced based on this disorder and whether the employer could reasonably accommodate these limitations. The Court of Appeals recognized that the employer must engage in an interactive process and the failure to do so is a potential defect to the employer’s position which could ultimately find the employer liable for a failure to accommodate the disabling condition. Employers are reminded that the interactive process is a critical item that must be addressed when learning an employee suffers from a disability that must be accommodated by the employer.

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