Drexel exec with PTSD alleges mandatory Zoom meeting violated ADA

Dive Brief:

  • A VP and chief compliance and privacy officer for Drexel University in Philadelphia alleged in an April 8 lawsuit that her manager failed to accommodate her post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety by requiring her to attend a Zoom meeting (Gunter v. Drexel University).
  • In lieu of their regularly scheduled one-on-one phone meeting, the manager allegedly told the VP she would have to attend a Zoom meeting with a junior staff member who had questioned her handling of a student complaint. The plaintiff expressed discomfort with the video meeting and requested to meet with the manager alone first, but the manager refused, she said, despite knowing she had “stress, anxiety and other disabilities related to her work environment.”
  • During the Zoom meeting, the plaintiff continued to express her discomfort. Afterward, the manager allegedly accused her of insubordination, and she was placed on administrative leave.

Dive Insight:

The ADA protects individuals with disabilities, including those with with “silent” impairments, such as PTSD, epilepsy, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, according to guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Absent under hardship, if an employee with these or other disabilities needs a reasonable accommodation to participate in the “benefits and privileges of employment” equal to those enjoyed by similarly situated employees without disabilities, the employer generally is obligated to provide one, the EEOC says. Moreover, while the ADA doesn’t explicitly require the employer to engage in a good-faith interactive process of searching for an accommodation, it favors such efforts.

HR professionals may be familiar with the possible need to provide assistive technology to employees with visual or hearing impairments so they can effectively participate in a video or phone conference, as the EEOC describes in various guidances. But being on camera in a video meeting may also exacerbate symptoms of anxiety, the nonprofit resource platform Disability:IN points out in a post.

The interactive process can help employers determine how to address ADA issues related to technology, a consultant with the Job Accommodations Network noted in a blog. To illustrate how, the consultant used the example of employees who, due to stress or anxiety, ask to be removed from tasks that involve talking on the phone, such as those performed by a customer service representative or a desk employee charged with troubleshooting calls from staff.

“During the interactive process, the employer can turn the conversation back to the employee and ask her what she will need in order to do the job effectively,” the consultant wrote; “[w]e would advise trying to find out what is most difficult for her as she takes the phone calls to see what accommodations can be provided to assist her.”

In Gunter, the manager and Drexel allegedly “did not make a good faith effort to assist Plaintiff but rather [the manager] simply refused to meet with Plaintiff or change the Zoom meeting to telephonic as Plaintiff made requests for both,” the complaint asserted.