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Employee’s depression, anxiety were ADA disabilities as matter of law

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

Pointing to an EEOC guidance and to a list of examples in EEOC regulations, a federal district court in Tennessee concluded, as a matter of law, that an employee whose depression and anxiety undisputedly limited her in several daily activities, including the ability to think, communicate, and sleep, had a “disability” as defined by the ADA. Granting her motion for partial summary judgment, the court also found that she met the definition through a record of a disability, given the many communications from medical professionals to the employer during her medical leave (Williams v. AT&T Mobility Services, LLC, May 16, 2016, Anderson, S.).

Prior treatment. The employee was a customer service rep who took inbound calls from AT&T customers and assisted with billing. She started receiving treatment for depression in 2007 and her periods of depression and anxiety negatively affected her ability to concentrate, think, learn, sleep, and communicate. Her impairments also affected her appetite, led her to avoid social settings and to neglect personal grooming, and made it harder to care for her young son. She requested accommodations in late 2012 and May 2013 and was granted short term disability (STD) from September 6 through November 18, 2013, and again from December 3, 2013 to January 20, 2014. She also applied for FMLA leave based the need for treatment of her depression.

Treatment in 2014 and termination. On April 19, 2014, the employee left work mid-shift due to her depression and anxiety. For the next several months, AT&T received many communications and paperwork from the employee’s medical and psychiatric treatment providers describing her condition and indicating the need for intensive therapy. She went on STD, which was originally approved through May 27 but eventually was extended through July 2. She was fired effective July 3 for “job abandonment and unsatisfactory attendance.”

Employee had “disability” under ADA. In her subsequent ADA suit, the employee moved for partial summary judgment as to whether she had a “disability” as defined under the Act. In opposition, AT&T argued that expert testimony was required to show a causative link between her mental impairments and the limitations on a major life activity as compared to the general populace “to a reasonable degree of medical certainty.” Disagreeing, the court noted that AT&T did not cite any law supporting its argument. Moreover, the EEOC enforcement guidance states that expert testimony about substantial limitations is not required.

In addition, EEOC regulations list impairments that will “virtually always be found to impose a substantial limitation on a major life activity,” and state that “it should easily be concluded that . . . major depressive disorder . . . substantially limit[s] brain function.” These words, explained the court, “create a strong presumption, which AT&T has not refuted, that Plaintiff’s severe depressive disorder and anxiety substantially affected a wide range of major life activities.”

It was also significant in this case that AT&T did not refute the employee’s testimony that her anxiety and depression negatively affected her ability to concentrate, think, learn, communicate; negatively impacted her appetite; caused her to suffer insomnia and fatigue; affected her punctuality; caused her to neglect personal grooming; and led her to avoid social settings. Based on the foregoing, the employee was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the issue of whether she had an actual impairment.

Record of disability. The court also granted the employee’s motion on her contention that AT&T had a record of her impairments, so her severe depressive disorder and anxiety would also fall under this prong of the ADA’s definition of disability. The record showed, and it was undisputed, that AT&T was repeatedly notified by the employee and her medical providers of her depression and anxiety, as well as how the impairments affected her daily life activities. That was enough to satisfy this prong of the definition.