By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: In an EEOC disability discrimination lawsuit alleging that an employer failed to accommodate and then wrongfully terminated a laundry technician with anxiety, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, holding the EEOC did not establish that the employee was disabled for purposes of the Americans With Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101, et seq. (“ADA”).

This ruling provides insight for employers relative to defending ADA lawsuits where the alleged disability may be questionable.

Case Background

In EEOC v. West Meade Place LLP d/b/a The Health Care Center at West Meade Place (“WMP”), No. 3:18-CV-101, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 182600 (M.D. Tenn. Oct. 22, 2019), the EEOC alleged that WMP violated the ADA by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation to a former employee, and by wrongfully discharging her because of her disability. The employee, who worked as a laundry technician at WMP from February 2015 to November 2015, was terminated after requesting an accommodation for her anxiety disorder.  WMP argued that the employee was not disabled under the ADA, and therefore the EEOC’s failure to accommodate and unlawful termination claims failed.  After discovery, WMP moved for summary judgment.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted WMP’s motion for summary judgment.  First, the Court explained that under the ADA, a “disability” is defined in three ways, including: (a) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual; (b) a record of such an impairment; or (c) being regarded as having such an impairment.  Id. at *4 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)).  For purposes of this definition, “major life activities” include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.  Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2)).

In support of its allegation that the employee was disabled, the EEOC relied on the testimony of a doctor who opined 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.”  Id. at *4.  The Court noted that although the doctor’s deposition testimony confirmed her diagnosis of the employee as having “anxiety,” she did not explain how she reached that diagnosis by use of her medical expertise.  Id. at *6.  The physician’s testimony suggested that she relied on a diagnosis made by a previous physician, which was suggested to her by the employee.  Id.

Further, the Court explained that the EEOC must also show that the impairment substantially limited one or more of the employee’s major life activities when her anxiety was active.  The Court held that nothing in the deposition testimony supported such a finding, inasmuch as the doctor’s notation on the medical form – that the employee could not work during flare-ups and could potentially need to take off one-to-three days per month – did not appear to have been based on a medical assessment, but instead based on a request made to the physician by the employee.

The EEOC also argued in the alternative that the employee had a “record of impairment” that was provided to WMP at the start of her employment.  An individual has “a record of a disability if the individual has a history of, or has been misclassified as having, a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”  Id. at *9 (citing 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(k)(1)).  After examining the various onboarding forms cited in support of the EEOC’s argument, the Court held that nothing in those forms indicated that the employee had ever been treated for a mental condition, nor had she consulted or been treated by clinics, physicians, healers, or other practitioners with the past 5 years for other than minor illnesses, and thus did not establish a “record of impairment” under the ADA. Id. at *10-11.

Finally, the EEOC argued that the employee was “regarded as having an impairment” by WMP. Id. at *12.  The Court explained that “[a]n individual meets the requirement of ‘being regarded as having such an impairment’ if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under this chapter because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.”  42 U.S.C. § 12102(3)(A).  The Court rejected the EEOC’s argument, holding that nothing in the deposition testimony cited by the EEOC indicated that WMP did not take any action based on a perceived impairment.

Accordingly, because none of the evidence offered by the EEOC showed that the employee had a disability as defined by the ADA, the Court granted WMP’s motion for summary judgment.

Implications For Employers

While some disabilities and medical conditions are readily apparent, others may appear less obvious.  Although employers should take a cautious approach when confronted with requests for accommodations, in instances where such requests may not be medically supported, the ruling in EEOC v. WMP provides insight into how employers can defend against corresponding ADA claims by maintaining detailed onboarding records and aggressively deposing medical experts relied upon by the EEOC.