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Is Anxiety Affecting Your Work? Find Out What the ADA Says About Mental Impairments

July 3, 2015 Americans with Disabilities Act Claims

Hard-to-prove conditions can make work life difficult when employers may not be sympathetic

Most people have felt anxiety from time to time.

For some, though, anxiety may be more than a temporarily unpleasant emotion. In fact, anxiety can even rise to the level of becoming a “mental impairment” if gets in the way of someone performing their regular daily activities, such as caring for themselves.

But when those issues start interfering with work, things can become even more complicated.

The fact is, mental impairments can be hard to verify. That means employers may be suspicious of staffers who claim to suffer from anxiety, depression, panic disorders, or similar conditions. 

What ends up happening then?

Unfortunately, the work environment may become toxic. The employee may end up quitting, being driven out, or finding themselves terminated for poor performance.

But it’s important to know that people who suffer from anxiety or other mental impairments may actually be eligible for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Let’s take a look at how the law views mental impairments – and what it can mean in terms of job protection and accommodations under the ADA.

How ADA Protection is Determined

There’s no cut-and-dried way to determine if a mental impairment is covered under the ADA.

That’s because the ADA does not spell out a specific list of named conditions. Instead, it requires that each person’s condition and job is examined on a case-by-case basis.

Eligibility begins with these three criteria:

The person must be qualified to do the job. That is, he or she must have the appropriate education, experience, and professional licenses to perform the duties required for the position.

The person must suffer from a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a life activity. For example, the impairment could make it difficult to hear, see, speak, walk, breathe, perform manual tasks, care for oneself, learn, or work.

The person must be able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without accommodation.

It’s this third point that often requires extremely careful consideration. The idea is that a person should be able to perform the main duties of the job, that is, those tasks that constitute the core of the position. “With or without accommodation” means one of two things:

The staffer can perform the duties without assistance

The staffer would be able to perform the duties if given an assistive device or job modification (e.g., a schedule change or relocation to a different area)

What it means in terms of mental impairments

Now that we have a framework for ADA eligibility, let’s consider how it might apply to mental impairments and work.

In one court case that generated a lot of headlines, a teacher began suffering from extreme anxiety and depression after she was put on a performance improvement plan (PIP) at work. She brought in a doctor’s note asking for specific job accommodations to reduce her anxiety on the job. The school said yes to some accommodations and no to others.

However, when the PIP ended, the woman was terminated.

The woman sued under the ADA. The district tried to the get case thrown out, arguing that the woman couldn’t make an ADA claim because she wasn’t disabled.

But the court disagreed and refused to dismiss the case. It stated that the woman showed sufficient proof that she was suffering from extreme anxiety-related symptoms. For example, she’d lost an excessive amount of weight over several months and had medical documentation of stress-related symptoms.

Many employer-side lawyers would argue that this case is an example of how people can abuse the ADA. But a closer read of the opinion reveals a picture of a woman who may have been victimized by her supervisor after a disagreement. After being subjected to an extremely high level of scrutiny, the teacher began to suffer adverse health effects as a result of the added pressure. Those effects began to take a toll on her health, which, in turn, put her under the ADA umbrella.

Contact the Murphy Law Group Now for a Free Consultation

As I stated above, ADA protection is highly dependent on an individual’s particular circumstances. Because the statute is so complicated, it’s best to speak to an attorney who is well-versed in ADA issues if you have questions or concerns.

Email us at, or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation to find out more about your rights.