Social anxiety and the ADA

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After two years in which a large amount of the working population has been largely disconnected from one another by remote work, there are a lot of articles out there about the etiquette of the return to the office. We’re not here to tell employees they cannot wear sweatpants, or what items definitively should never go in the breakroom microwave. Our subject today is a firm reminder, that the ADA applies to disabilities we cannot always see, and for some employees, the re-acclimation to the office will be a difficult one due to their mental health, particularly if they struggle with Social Anxiety Disorder. Let’s look at one recent example that illustrates the importance of applying the interactive process for ADA when addressing an employee’s mental health concerns.

The facts

The most important fact is that phobias and social anxiety disorder are real, and by the time a person is officially diagnosed as having a disabling condition, the symptoms have likely been debilitating on more than one occasion. As alleged in Berling vs. Gravity Diagnostics, and subsequently in the Trial Order and Judgement, Mr. Berling’s condition was very real and fundamentally disregarded by his employer.

The ADA violation

It was a well-known tradition at Gravity Diagnostics that employee birthdays were celebrated by all with a cake and the standard fanfare. Mr. Berling was also acutely aware that being the center of attention was not his ideal way to spend time with co-workers. He had been with the company for nearly 10 months without incident, and by all accounts had done a good job without any accommodations needed to complete his essential functions. Just shy of a week before his birthday, Mr. Berling spoke with his manager to reveal his anxiety disorder and ask that they accommodate his request to forego the traditional birthday celebration, as it would be a stressful experience.

Regardless of this request, on the day of his birthday, Mr. Berling was unexpectedly greeted in the lunchroom with a full celebration. As a result, he experienced a panic attack and spent the remainder of his lunch break in his car. At that time, he made another attempt to advocate for his mental health and sent a text to his supervisor about her failure to accommodate his request. The next day, he was called into a meeting with a Ms. Amy Blackburn and a Mr. Ted Kanuf, where he was criticized by Ms. Blackburn about his reaction. The confrontation caused another panic attack and Mr. Berling was sent home for the next two work days. Later that day, Mr. Berling texted Ms. Blackburn an apology for having a panic attack. Approximately two days later, Mr. Berling was terminated from his job, with the reason being “because of the events of the previous week”.

The results

Let’s skip right to the point. It took the jury only 90 minutes to return with a unanimous decision in favor of Mr. Berling. The award of $450,000 was determined on the basis of $120K in lost wages, $30K in future lost wages, and $300K for past, present, and future mental pain and suffering, mental anguish, embarrassment, humiliation, mortification, and loss of self-esteem.

Additionally, he was entitled to recover costs of the lawsuit and reasonable attorney fees.

The lessons

The ADA requires employees and employers to engage in the interactive process and when an employee initiates that engagement with clear communication of their defined disability and the requested accommodation, managers should be adequately trained to recognize these as such and respond professionally, compliantly, and hopefully with compassion.

Not just managers of people, but all employees should be sufficiently informed about the ADA to recognize how their role plays a part, whether it is specific to a direct report or a peer.

The final lesson is that bullies don’t just exist on the playground. It is an employer’s obligation to combat such behaviors that are usually a result of a lack of knowledge and awareness. Employees have a right to a workplace that is conducive to doing their job and contributing in a way that works for them. When they advocate for their well-being, it should be not just responded to in conjunction with federal or state laws, but respected by their co-workers, and most importantly by their managers, whose job it is foster a productive environment.

What employers should do

Employers should ensure that there are resources for training managers, available support for employees, and defined processes in place to create consistent, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A good starting point would be the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). As a service provided by the U.S. Department of Labor, JAN is a reliable resource which has been providing free, expert, and confidential guidance for over 35 years. A review of the Practical Guide to Reasonable Accommodations would be a starting point. At minimum, an employer can put a significant safety net in place by requiring managers of people to read and understand how the Interactive Process works and truly is a protection plan for all involved.

What Guardian is doing

As a third-party administrator, Guardian is committed to serving our clients’ needs. Our staff is highly trained on facilitating the interactive process for employers to ensure compliance with the requirements under the ADA.

If you’re looking for assistance managing claims or to ensure compliance across your organization, Guardian has solutions for you. Check out our offerings here.

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Disclaimer

Information provided on this blog is intended for general educational use. It is not intended to provide legal advice. Guardian does not provide legal services. Consult an attorney for legal advice on this or any other topic.

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