“Companionship is a foreign concept to some people. They fear it as much as the majority of people fear loneliness.”
― Criss Jami, Killosophy.
“It's tricky being shy. You blame yourself for it, and other people blame you too.”
― Jaclyn Moriarty, The Slightly Alarming Tale of the Whispering Wars
In this week’s case, we travel (by car, 12 hours due south from Syracuse) down to New Hanover County, North Carolina, where Michael Jordan was raised since he was a toddler. (He was born in New York City). Jordan described himself as “a shy kid in high school, a good but not great athlete, a better baseball player, really.” Shyness is no joke. To some, it can be crippling. More than 200,000 cases of social anxiety disorder are reported every year.
Clinically, Social Anxiety Disorder is characterized by a disturbing fear of social situations where a person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others.
And this is a case about treating severely shy people in the workplace with compassion.
Enter: Christina Jacobs, a deputy clerk at a courthouse in North Carolina; Brenda Tucker, Clerk of the Court who hired Christina; Debra Excell and Jan Kennedy, Christina’s supervisors.
Although Christina suffered from social anxiety disorder, her boss assigned her to provide customer service at the courthouse front counter. Dealing with people at the busy front counter paralyzed Christina. Christina requested an accommodation – Christina asked to be assigned to a role with less direct interpersonal interaction. Christina’s boss waited three weeks without acting on her request and then fired her. Christina sued.
Q. What is Christina’s medical history?
A. Christina has suffered from mental illness since childhood. At ten, Christina was diagnosed with severe situational performance anxiety. At twelve, she was hospitalized for several days after threatening harm to herself and others.
Q. Was Christina diagnosed at the hospital?
A. Yes. During her hospitalization Christina was diagnosed with mood disorder and selective mutism, and prescribed antidepressants.
Q. And when Christina was older?
A. At the age of 18, Christina received an additional diagnosis of social anxiety disorder for which she has been treated intermittently by several physicians.
Q. Doctor, Christina was in a position before being promoted that did not involve dealing with the general public at all. And in that position, Christina displayed no signs of anxiety. Then, after being promoted to a different position, Christina cannot function. Can you explain that?
A. Certainly. A job promotion to a position requiring public speaking may result in the emergence of social anxiety disorder in someone who previously never needed to speak in public.
Testimony of Christina
Q. When were you hired?
A. In January 2009, I was hired as an office assistant in the criminal division of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts
Q. What were your duties in that position?
A. Mostly microfilming court records and filing them.
Q. Did you receive a performance review?
A. Less than a month after I started, my supervisor, Brenda, promoted me to deputy clerk. And I got a raise.
Q. Describe what a deputy clerk does.
A. Well, 30 total deputy clerks worked in the criminal division. Four or five of the deputy clerks provided customer service at the division’s front counter. The remaining deputy clerks performed other filing and record-keeping tasks, many of which do not require face-to-face interaction with the public. I was assigned to the front.
Q. And what happened?
A. Very soon, I began to experience extreme stress, nervousness, and panic attacks while working at the front counter. I became particularly panicked when I was asked a question that I did not immediately know the answer--a common occurrence when working behind the counter.
Q. What did you do?
A. I went to my supervisor, Debra Excell, and told Debra that I had social anxiety disorder and was not feeling healthy while working at the front counter.
Q. Did you ask for an accommodation?
A. I did. I asked to be trained to fill a different role in the Clerk’s Office and perhaps work at the front counter only once a week.
Q. What happened next?
A. Nothing happened for three weeks. Then, I was called into a meeting with my supervisors and Brenda. Brenda told me I was being fired.
Q. Did Brenda tell you why?
A. Brenda said that I was being fired because I was not “getting it” and that Brenda did not “have any place that she could use my services.”
Q. Did you say anything?
A. I asked Brenda whether I was being fired because of my request; Brenda said that it didn’t have anything to do with the request.”
Testimony of Brenda
Q. Why did you fire Christina?
A. Christina was a slow worker.
Q. Anything else?
A. Yes. Christina fell asleep at her desk; she impermissibly disclosed information to members of the public; and, she had outbursts with coworkers and supervisors.
Q. Christina was never disciplined for any of those reasons, right?
A. She was not.
Q. And there are no write-ups in Christina’s file concerning any of those complaints?
Q. You were aware that Christina requested an accommodation – to change her position away from the front desk.
A. It was emailed to me while I was away.
Q. And that was before your fired her?
Q. And you never had a discussion with Christina about that accommodation request?
A. No. I was going to fire her anyway.
ATTORNEY: OBJECTION, move to strike all the testimony as non-responsive, with the exception of, “NO.”
COURT: SUSTAINED. The jury is instructed to ignore all the testimony given after the answer, “NO.”
ATTORNEY: Nothing further.
BRENDA’S CLOSING ARGUMENT
“Christina failed to show that interacting with others is a major life activity and failed to show that alleged social anxiety disorder substantially even limited her ability to interact with others.
WHAT DID CHRISTINA HAVE TO PROVE? FOLLOWED BY THE COURT’S RULINGS:
(1) that Christina was an individual who had a disability.
The Court ruled that Christina’s condition was in fact a disability and noted: “Few activities are more central to the human condition than interacting with others.”
(2) that the employer had notice of Christina’s disability.
The Court ruled that Christina’s condition was known by her supervisors and documented in her file.
(3) that with reasonable accommodation Christina could perform the essential functions of the position.
The Court ruled that Christina would have been able to do her job if she was relocated as she had done in the past.
(4) the employer refused to make accommodations.
The Court found that the employer did not even discuss the accommodation with her.
Christina’s bosses should have been trained to know that when a disabled worker makes a request for an accommodation they must at least engage in a conversation to see how it can be worked out. But it appears in this case that Brenda just “didn’t get it.”
Here is the case: http://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/Opinions/Published/132212.P.pdf