Claustrophobia As A Disability: When The Walls Start To Feel Like They're Closing In

A Texas hair salon found out the hard way – in 2016 it had to pay $60,000 to settle an EEOC suit filed a while ago under the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

For what?

Turns out that the stylist suffered from, and told the salon that she could not work at a salon station “if it was in a confined space located between others,” or she would suffer anxiety attacks. (Full disclosure: I suffer from a touch of this myself, so I shuddered when this person described how she felt when in a confined space).

The hair stylist was initially given a more open station, but later the company placed her between other stylists. She asked a number of times to return to a more open station, but the company refused her requests. She claims that she thereafter suffered a physical reaction that required hospital emergency room treatment.

The company ultimately fired her.

The EEOC Regional Attorney said at the time that “Claustrophobia is a serious matter. When we discovered management refused to give this employee some space, our investigation closed in on what amounted to intolerance by management.”

Is claustrophobia a disability?

Claustrophobia is listed as an anxiety disorder under the ADA as amended in 2008. Mike Paddock wrote in “Claustrophobia: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments,” that:

“Claustrophobia is an anxiety disorder in which the sufferer has an irrational fear of having no escape or being closed-in. It frequently results in a panic attack and can be triggered by certain stimuli or situations, such as being in a crowded elevator, a small room without any windows, or being in an airplane. Some patients with claustrophobia find their anxiety levels rise when they wear tight-necked clothing.”

A New Case

And now there’s a new lawsuit, this time by an employee of a Pennsylvania fireworks company who claims that he had been a good employee since 1984, but never had a need to mention his claustrophobia to his employer – until the company announced that it was moving to a new building which had few windows, and none in the employee’s office.

He then told the company president about his claustrophobia.

To make a long story short, he was eventually severed from employment for poor performance with a note saying “Unfavorable reaction to office relocation.”

Uh oh.

For an excellent discussion of mental illness generally as a disability which employers must accommodate, read my partner Amy Epstein Gluck’s post on this blog, in which she noted, among many other things:

“Because many mental health impairments are not obvious or even noticeable, employers may be unaware of which accommodations may be effective, or hesitant to provide accommodations for an employee who may seem erratic or high-strung, or has trouble concentrating. But employers should sit down and talk to an employee they suspect of a disability. These folks may be reticent to start the conversation due to the perceived stigma of having a “disability.” No need to say “Hey, are you suffering from a mental illness?” No, that can land you in different kinds of trouble.

However, if you see that an employee is struggling, you can say “I see you are having trouble [concentrating], [communicating], [socially interacting]…etc. Is there any accommodation we can provide to help you?”

This often opens the door to employees who may want help but fear the consequences of telling their employer they have some form of mental impairment.”

Takeaway

Conditions which some employers deem trivial, minor, or think can simply be “shaken off” or are “made up” or imagined, may indeed be real disabilities and recognized as such by medical professionals and governmental agencies.

Don’t try to be Freud, Inspector Javert, or a wise guy: if a person claims to suffer a disability, whether or not you think it’s real is truly of no moment.

You must engage in an interactive discussion with the employee to seek a reasonable accommodation that is not burdensome.

And if you have questions – or doubts – this is no time for making light of the situation: seek out someone with knowledge of the employment laws and/or disabilities.

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Richard Cohen

Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]