In Jones v. McDonough, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee made clear that a plaintiff cannot rely on a self-diagnosis of mental illnesses to prove that she was entitled to an accommodation under the ADA. Instead, she must show that she was diagnosed with a medical condition that substantially limited one or more of her major life activities by an actual medical professional.
The Plaintiff in Jones was a long-time employee of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”), and as part of her job, she was required to meet specific productivity criteria. However, during the final months of her employment, Plaintiff failed to meet those criteria, even after the VA put her on a performance improvement plan. So, the VA terminated her. Plaintiff then filed suit, claiming that the VA failed to accommodate her alleged disabilities, her self-diagnosed depression and anxiety.
On summary judgment, the Court found that Plaintiff could not proceed with her failure to accommodate claim because she could not show that she suffered from a disability, as defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Specifically, Plaintiff presented no evidence that she had been diagnosed with anxiety or depression, her alleged impairments. Her own declaration claiming she had such conditions, the only evidence she offered on that point, did not contain any language suggesting that a doctor or other medical professional had actually diagnosed her. The Court explained that, although expert medical evidence is not always required for a plaintiff to prove that she suffers from a disability, such evidence is necessary when “a condition would be unfamiliar to a lay jury and only an expert could diagnose that condition.” Depression and anxiety are just such conditions. Thus, as a matter of law, in order to qualify as an impairment under the ADA, Plaintiff’s depression and anxiety must have been diagnosed by a medical professional. Without evidence of such a diagnosis, Plaintiff’s failure to accommodate claim failed.
While employers should remember that mental illnesses are disabilities under the ADA, self-diagnosis of such illnesses is almost never enough to trigger employee protection under the ADA. Employers should always take care and consider consulting counsel before denying accommodation requests for alleged mental illnesses, particularly in light of the interactive process requirements at play anytime an employee requests an accommodation.