“Is anxiety a disability?” An interesting question though without a clear answer. During these apprehensive times with angry politics and international war, countless individuals suffer from anxiety. In 2019, research by the World Health Organization (WHO) noted 301 million people in the world had anxiety disorders, and this was before the outbreak of COVID-19. Thus, anxiety disorders are “the most common mental disorders.” But this brings us back to the question, “Is anxiety a disability?” It’s not much of a surprise to say, legally it all depends. But don’t hate us for that answer.

In 2024, the Michigan Court of Appeals considered just such a question in Tyler v. Kalamazoo Public Schools, 2024 WL 203791 (Mich. Ct. App. Jan. 18). In this case, the plaintiff was a teacher who experienced anxiety due to mask requirements under COVID-19 protocols. A doctor diagnosed her with anxiety and depression, treating her for “anxiety, stress, frustration, and depression as a result of difficulties at school.”

The plaintiff requested reasonable accommodation, but the school district denied her request. Soon, the teacher brought an action against the district, alleging a violation of Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities and Civil Rights Act, which is aligned with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The trial court dismissed the case and the plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeals agreed. Specifically, the court stated the plaintiff did not satisfy the initial burden of demonstrating her mental condition satisfied the definition of disability under the Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act. Under the act, a disability is defined as a “determinable physical or mental characteristic of an individual that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities and is unrelated to the individual’s ability to perform the duties of a particular job.”

The Court of Appeals held the record did not explain how wearing a mask induced anxiety that limited the teacher’s work. The plaintiff’s “evidence failed to establish the nature and severity of the impairment, failed to intimate the duration or expected duration of the impairment, nor did the evidence establish that such impairment is permanent or expected to be permanent or have a long-term effect.” The court determined without such evidence, the trail court was correct in dismissing the plaintiff’s case.

Certainly, we have progressed pass the days when General George S. Patton could slap the helmet off a soldier for claiming anxiety while sitting in a field hospital – and we would not recommend this action as it will get you fired – but whether an employee suffers from an anxiety disability under the law is entirely dependent on whether the medical condition affects the employee’s ability to work.

The employee, along with medical documentation, must demonstrate a clear medical condition prevents the employee from carrying out their job requirements. When discussing these details with an employee, employers should be sure to link the medical condition with the employee’s job description to make a knowledgeable evaluation as to whether the medical condition represents a disability under the related law.

The information and opinions expressed are for educational purposes only and are based on current practice, industry-related knowledge and business expertise. The information provided shall not be construed as legal advice, express or implied.