The Difficulty of Defining a Disability—Anxiety

In today’s world, countless individuals suffer from anxiety in its various forms. According to the World Health Organization, in 2019, 301 million people in the world had an anxiety disorder, which makes anxiety disorders “the most common of all mental disorders.”[1] But is “anxiety” a “disability” in a legal sense? Is someone with “anxiety” entitled to reasonable accommodations? The answer is—as is often the case with legal issues—it depends.

The Michigan Court of Appeals considered the issue in Tyler v. Kalamazoo Public Schools, 2024 WL 203791 (Mich. Ct. App. Jan. 18, 2024). There, the plaintiff was a school teacher who alleged that, due to the mask requirements occurring under COVID-19 protocols, she experienced symptoms of anxiety. A physician diagnosed the plaintiff with “adjustment disorder with anxiety and depression” and treated her for “anxiety, stress, frustration, and depression [she] experienced in the last few years, largely as [a] result of difficulties at school.” Id. at *3. When the plaintiff requested a reasonable accommodation, the school district denied the request. The plaintiff brought an action against the district, alleging, among other claims, a violation of Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities and Civil Rights Act, which parallels the Americans with Disabilities Act. The trial court granted the district’s motion for summary disposition and dismissed the case. The plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. Specifically, the court held that “[b]ecause plaintiff did not satisfy her initial burden of demonstrating that her mental condition satisfied the definition of disability under the PWDCRA, the trial court properly granted summary disposition on this issue.” Id. at *4. Under the act, a disability is defined as a “determinable physical or mental characteristic of an individual . . . [that] substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of that individual and is unrelated to the individual’s ability to perform the duties of a particular job or position . . . .” Id. (citing MCL 37.1103(d)(i)(A)). Importantly, “‘[n]ot every impairment rises to the level of a disability.’” Id. at *4 (citations omitted). Instead, a plaintiff must show that the disability “substantially limit[s] a major life activity but does not ‘prevent the disabled individual from performing the duties of a particular job.’” Id. (citations omitted).

In affirming the trial court, the Court of Appeals held that the record did “not explain how wearing a mask induced anxiety that substantially limited [Plaintiff’s] work, sleep or breathing.” Id. at *6. Plaintiff’s “evidence did not explain how plaintiff’s anxiety impacted her sleep or breathing, failed to describe how these life activities were interrupted, failed to establish the nature and severity of the impairment, failed to intimate the duration or expected duration of the impairment, nor did the evidence establish that such impairment is permanent or expected to be permanent or have a long-term effect.”  Id.  In the absence of such evidence, the “trial court did not err” in dismissing the plaintiff’s case.


Whether an employee suffers from a “disability” under the law is dependent upon whether the medical condition affects the employee’s ability to perform the work. The employee, along with any medical documentation provided, must demonstrate clearly that the medical condition precludes the employee from carrying out specific job requirements and responsibilities. When engaging in that dialogue with an employee, known as the interactive process, employers should be sure to tie the medical condition with the employee’s job description to make an informed evaluation as to whether the medical condition constitutes a “disability” under applicable law.

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About the Author:

Aaron Burrell (Member, Detroit & Troy) focuses his practice in the areas of complex commercial litigation, labor and employment law, appellate law, and minority business enterprises. As a member of the firm’s labor and employment practice, he has successfully defended clients in a wide range of discrimination and unfair-labor-practice claims in state and federal court, as well as before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, and the National Labor Relations Board. Mr. Burrell has also counseled clients on all aspects of the employment relationship, including hiring, discipline, and the creation and enforcement of employment agreements. Mr. Burrell may be reached at 313-223-3118 or at