Ask The Lawyer By: Daniel A. Gwinn, Esq, Can Fear of Public Speaking Cost Me My Job?
QUESTION: About ten months ago, I started a new job (I’m a white collar professional). Part of the job description stated I would be required to make reports at weekly meetings. I’ve never been comfortable speaking in public, but I thought I could manage. I couldn’t. Every time I was required to speak, my heart started racing, I felt sick to my stomach, my hands started shaking and I could hardly speak. When the meetings switched over to Zoom in March, I thought it would be easier — but it was worse. I passed out during one meeting. I asked whether I could give a written report each week, but was told that was not acceptable because of the need for interactive feedback. When I said I could not give an oral report of any kind, I was fired. Do I have any legal rights here?
ANSWER: You may have rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment against people who have a disability, or who are thought to have a disability. You may also have rights under state law. Employees with disabilities who are otherwise qualified for their jobs are entitled to a “reasonable accommodation,” one that will allow them to perform all the essential functions of a job without causing any undue hardship to the employer.
So, the first question is whether your extreme fear of speaking in public, or in any group setting, is a disability under the law. Anxiety, by itself, is not enough: In 2019, over 15 percent of adult Americans suffered from anxiety to some degree, a number that has risen to about 30 percent in response to the pandemic. The symptoms you describe, however, may go beyond generalized anxiety. You might be suffering from a social anxiety disorder — which has been recognized as a disability in cases interpreting the ADA. The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more …major life activities.” If you have not already sought help from a psychiatrist or therapist you should do so: They may be able to suggest ways to minimize your anxiety, and/or provide you with medication. A mental health professional could also verify that you have a disability that affects your ability to talk in a group setting. This verification would be useful in any lawsuit, and provide support for any accommodation claim you may make in any new job. An employer may ask for verification of a disability if you request an accommodation, but is not entitled to all the details.
The next question is whether you are a “qualified individual.” If speaking at the group meetings is an essential element of your job, you will not have a claim under the ADA. An employer is not required to relieve disabled workers of a crucial part of their jobs as an accommodation — and can discharge such employees without violating their rights. Sometimes it is obvious that a person with a certain disability cannot perform an essential job function: An individual who is blind cannot work as a driver; a person with a ruptured disc cannot work in a job that requires frequent heavy lifting, and a person who is deaf cannot work as a court reporter. The problem is that many employers claim all aspects of a job are “essential” — whether they are or not. In many lawsuits, the determination of whether the task is essential is often decided by a judge or jury.
You should talk to an attorney, who will go over the facts of your case in detail to determine whether you have a viable lawsuit. If talking on the phone is difficult for you, many attorneys — like Gwinn Legal — will respond to e-mailed inquiries. But, you need to be aware that bringing a lawsuit will likely involve some kind of “public” speaking — even if it’s only in front of a couple of attorneys and a transcriptionist at deposition.
The lawyers at GWINN LEGAL PLLC are experienced attorneys and are happy to answer your questions. Give us a call for a free initial telephone consultation about your legal needs. For consideration of your questions in our web column, please submit your inquiry on the “Contact Us” page of our website at www.gwinnlegal.com.
Information provided on “Ask the Lawyer” is current as of the date of publication. Laws and their interpretation are subject to change. The material provided through “Ask the Lawyer” is informational only; it should not be considered legal advice. Submitting a question to “Ask the Lawyer” does not create an attorney-client relationship between the person submitting the question and GWINN LEGAL PLLC. To view previous columns, please visit our website.
ASK THE LAWYER
By: Daniel A. Gwinn, Esq
.Attorney and Counselor at Law
GWINN LEGAL PLLC
901 Wilshire Drive, Suite 550
Troy, MI 48084
(248) 247-3310 facsimile