Phobias Can Be Frightening for HR

By Katie Loehrke

Aug. 26, 2015

Employees with phobias can sometimes find protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is perhaps even more likely since 2008, when the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act made the definition of “disability” more inclusive.

Nevertheless, whether the ADA’s protections apply and whether employers must provide particular reasonable accommodations under the law depends largely on the specifics of each situation.

For instance, it may seem logical that someone with acrophobia (a fear of heights) would struggle in a job that requires regular maintenance work on bridges. One might assume that such an employee wouldn’t be a qualified individual under the ADA, and therefore wouldn’t be entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the law. However, a 2011 case before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals (Miller v. Illinois Department of Transportation) indicated that the answer wasn’t that simple.

The court indicated in this case that working at extreme heights might not have been an essential job function; it was involved in only about 3 percent of the employee’s duties. What’s more, the employee’s fear had been accommodated for several years, as he had not been required to do the tasks that included such work. Ultimately, the appeals court ruled that the employee may have needed to be accommodated after all, and that there was enough left in question with this case for a jury to decide.

A Teacher’s Biggest Fear

More recently, a case (Waltherr-Willard v. Mariemont City Schools) surfaced before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals involving a teacher with pedophobia: the fear of children. Like the bridge worker, this teacher asked for an accommodation for a phobia that seemed particularly in conflict with the core responsibilities of her job.

This employee taught several high school French courses and one Spanish class, but when she was asked to move to teach elementary school, she revealed to the school that her phobia prevented her from teaching children under 12. As a result, the school allowed the teacher to continue at the high school level. Years later, however, when the school moved its French courses online, the employee was again offered a transfer, but this time to teach middle school.

According to the lawsuit, the teacher did not protest this particular transfer, though she did eventually claim that the reassignment triggered her phobia and requested to be transferred back to high school. After being told no positions were available, the employee retired and later sued under the ADA, claiming that the school district failed to accommodate her under the ADA.

The ADA requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations for employees who — with or without a reasonable accommodation — can perform the essential functions of their jobs.

However, under the ADA, employers are not required to create new positions, or displace other employees as reasonable accommodations.

The court ruled in favor of the employer, indicating that, since there were no other jobs available, the teacher’s request to transfer would have qualified as an undue hardship for the employer. As such, the employer was not required to honor the request. In this case, the court did not speak to whether, as a teacher with a phobia of children, the employee was able to perform the essential functions of her job.

In both cases, the specifics turned out to be very important, but that’s the point. Situations involving the ADA are often much more nuanced and detailed than they originally appear. It’s the job of human resources professionals to take the time to dig into a situation like one of these to make sure that an uninformed snap judgment doesn’t result in a drawn-out court battle.

The next time you catch yourself mentally labeling an accommodation request as ridiculous, take a minute to challenge your assumptions. Revisit the situation to make sure you really have all the information, and separate what you know from what you think you know. Remember that whether a particular accommodation will be needed under the ADA will depend largely on the specifics of the individual employee, his or her functional limitations, the specifics of his or her job, and the resources and circumstances of your organization.

Further, keep in mind that whether a particular accommodation is reasonable will depend on whether granting the accommodation would impose undue hardship on the employer. Undue hardship is imposed if an accommodation comes with “significant difficulty or expense,” but this determination requires an assessment of the resources and circumstances of the employer in relationship to the cost or difficulty of providing the accommodation. Larger employers will generally be expected to make accommodations requiring greater effort or expense than would be required of a smaller employer.

Once you’ve rejected mere assumptions and thought through the particulars of the ADA, fill in the details of each individual employee situation with research (which may include information from the employee and medical professionals, if necessary). When you really take the time to dig into a situation, you might just be surprised, for example, to find out that a bridge worker with acrophobia isn’t ridiculous at all.

Katie Loehrke is an editor with J.J. Keller & Associates, a compliance resource firm, and the editor of J.J. Keller’s Employment Law Today newsletter. To comment, email

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