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Customer Rep With Social Anxiety Can Proceed to Trial on Disability Claims

Can an employer lawfully fire a customer service employee whose social anxiety precludes her from interacting with customers? Not before exploring whether it can offer the employee a reasonable accommodation to perform her job duties, explained the Fourth Circuit in last week’s decision: Jacobs v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, No. 13-2212 (4th Cir. Mar. 12, 2015).

In this case, Christina Jacobs, who suffered from social anxiety disorder and other related mental illnesses, was promoted to a customer service position soon after hire at a North Carolina courthouse. Shortly after Jacobs began training, she started experiencing extreme stress, nervousness and panic attacks. When Jacobs raised the issue with her supervisor, she encouraged Jacobs to seek treatment from her doctor, which Jacobs did.

Approximately four months later, Jacobs sent an e-mail to her supervisors, disclosing her disability a second time, and requesting an accommodation. Jacobs was told that she would need to wait for a different supervisor to return from a three week vacation before the problem could be addressed. According to the vacationing supervisor, she only received one phone call while away. The call was from her assistant, informing her that Jacobs had been spotted sleeping at her desk. Upon return from her vacation, the supervisor terminated Jacobs.

After receiving a favorable determination from the EEOC, Jacobs sued in federal district court, alleging among other things, disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Clerk’s Office on all of Jacobs’s ADA claims, concluding that Jacobs was not disabled, despite the Clerk’s Office’s concession that she was.

The Fourth Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision, holding that a jury could conclude both that Jacobs was disabled within the meaning of the ADA, and that Jacobs’s disability was the cause of her discharge because her supervisor knew of her accommodation request prior to her termination. Moreover, because “[f]ewer than 15% of the office’s deputy clerks worked behind the front counter, and some deputy clerks never performed this task,” there was a dispute of fact whether working the front counter was an essential function of Jacobs’s position, and certainly, whether Jacobs’s request to work the counter less frequently was a reasonable accommodation that could be made.

The case highlights the importance of employers engaging in a thorough interactive process once an employee requests an accommodation, and serves as a reminder that with the expanded definition of “disability” under the amended ADA, employers should never assume that an employee’s medical condition does not qualify as a disability.

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