Labor & Employment Law Daily EEOC can’t advance ADA claims on behalf of laundry technician who suffered from anxiety
Monday, October 28, 2019

EEOC can’t advance ADA claims on behalf of laundry technician who suffered from anxiety

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

The EEOC’s claims that the employee had a mental impairment that substantially limited a major life activity, had a record of impairment, and was regarded as having an impairment all failed on summary judgment.

Even assuming a doctor’s deposition testimony was sufficient to establish that a laundry technician who suffered from anxiety had a mental impairment, nothing in her testimony or that of the employee showed the impairment substantially limited a major life activity, and other statements by the employee undermined the EEOC’s claim that her anxiety episodes were substantially limiting. Nor could the EEOC establish that the employee had a record of impairment or that her employer regarded her as having an impairment, held a federal court in Tennessee, granting summary judgment against the ADA claims brought by the EEOC on behalf of the employee (EEOC v. West Meade Place LLP dba The Health Care Center at West Meade Place, October 22, 2019, Campbell, W., Jr.).

Employed by a health care center as a laundry technician for approximately six months, the employee allegedly suffered from anxiety. After she was fired, purportedly for falsifying documents, the EEOC brought suit on her behalf alleging the employer failed to accommodate her disability and fired her because of her disability.

Doctor’s testimony. To support its claim, the EEOC relied on the deposition testimony of the employee’s doctor, who had stated in an FMLA form that the employee “could not work during flare-ups of her anxiety and therefore could potentially be unable to work for one to three days per month.” When the doctor was asked during her deposition, however, why she signed the form for the employee, she explained “Because she wanted me to sign it.” She also testified that the employee “asked me that whenever she has a flare-up of anxiety attacks, she wants this time off. I’m like, ‘Okay,’” because, said the doctor, “If she is wanting time off, I have to give it to her,” and “I mean, can I say ‘no’ to her or my patients?”

The doctor also admitted that the employee had already been diagnosed with anxiety when she first saw her, that she treated her anxiety with “an antianxiety pill,” and that the employee did not have a disability. Noting that this was the only testimony by a medical professional offered in support of the EEOC’s claims, the court found it was not evident her diagnosis of anxiety rose to the level of a mental impairment.

Not substantially limiting. Even assuming it was sufficient, there was nothing in the doctor’s testimony to show the impairment substantially limited one or more of the employee’s major life activities when her anxiety was active. Although the doctor noted on the FMLA form that the employee could not work during “flare-ups” and might need to take off up to three days per month, that appeared to have been based not on a medical assessment but instead on the doctor’s belief she could not refuse her patient’s request, observed the court, finding that the medical evidence did not establish a disability.

Employee’s testimony. And while the employee testified regarding the various symptoms she experienced during anxiety episodes, including that her heart would race and sometimes she would break down and cry, she also testified that her anxiety did not prevent her from being able to perform her job and did not substantially limit any major life activities. Noting that her testimony also suggested the episodes did not occur on a frequent basis, the court found the EEOC failed to establish a fact issue as to whether she was disabled.

Record of impairment. Alternatively, the EEOC argued that based on two forms provided to the employer at the start of employment—her Employee Health Examination form and Report of Medical History—she had a record of impairment. The Report of Medical History revealed that she used “Clozapine” and she marked “yes” as to whether she “Had Nervous, Mental or Psychological Problems,” handwriting in “anxiety.” But she also indicated she had no “Depression or excessive worry” or “Nervous trouble of any sort.” Further, the form indicated she had never been treated for a mental condition or “consulted or been treated by clinics, physicians, healers, or other practitioners with the past 5 years for other than minor illnesses.”

Likewise, the Employee Health Examination form revealed that she took “Colonzapam” but little else regarding her anxiety. Not only did the documents fail to establish a record of impairment, the employee failed to show that identifying the medicine she was taking established that her anxiety was so severe it substantially limited a major life activity, the court concluded.

Regarded as having an impairment. Nor was the EEOC able to convince the court that the employee was regarded by her employer as having an impairment. Although it relied on testimony by the director of nursing that the employee “had some sort of medical issue or an issue where she could not work her job duties at that time,” considered in context, it did not support the EEOC’s claim. Rather, the statement was part of the director’s testimony regarding the employee’s request for FMLA leave and the employee’s statement that she couldn’t be off work without pay and needed to come back to work. In response, the director testified: “I told her—I informed her that I couldn’t let her immediately come back to work; she had to go back to the doctor and the doctor had to approve her to come back to work because apparently she had—I explained she had some sort of medical issue or an issue where she could not work her job duties at that time or the doctor wouldn’t have wrote that, do not work for 12 weeks.”

Further, the director testified that she did not know the employee had a disability and that “When she said she had anxiety, that doesn’t make it a disability. I have anxiety. It’s not a disability.” Nothing in her testimony, said the court, suggested she regarded the employee as having an impairment or that she took any action based on a perceived impairment.

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