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Employer Win in California – Say What??? Stress From Working Under Particular Supervisor is Not a Disability

Over the course of a career many workers experience the displeasure of dealing with a difficult supervisor — the type of individual whose mere presence in the workplace is a source of dread and whose name inspires feelings of fear and loathing whenever it appears on a subordinate’s caller ID or the sender line of an email. But according to the California Court of Appeals, the apprehension this situation engenders does not qualify as a disability and does not give rise to a cause of action under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

In Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation, the plaintiff was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder after she informed her physician that she was experiencing stress due to interactions with her supervisor. Based on this diagnosis, the plaintiff’s employer granted her request for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act and California law. After exhausting her leave entitlement, the plaintiff briefly returned to work but then requested additional leave and a transition to a positon with a different supervisor as an accommodation for her alleged disability.  The employer permitted the additional leave but did not allow for her to transition roles.  When the plaintiff was still unable to return to work after several months, her employer terminated her and she filed an action in California state court alleging several violations of FEHA and California’s family leave statute.

The California Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for the employer on the ground that the plaintiff did not suffer from a recognized disability, explaining that “[a]n employee’s inability to work under a particular supervisor because of anxiety and stress related to the supervisor’s standard oversight of the employee’s job performance does not constitute a disability under FEHA.” The court noted that the definition of disability under FEHA encompasses an even broader range of mental and physical impairments than the Americans with Disabilities Act but nevertheless declined to extend that definition to cover the narrow anxiety disorder of which plaintiff complained. Even though the inability to perform “a single job with a single employer” may have been enough to establish a disability, the court found that “an employee’s inability to work under a particular supervisor” was simply a bridge too far.

Higgins-Williams is unusual in that it emphasizes an aspect of disability discrimination law on which employers seldom prevail. Following passage of the ADA Amendments Act in 2008 and the EEOC’s expansive regulations in 2011, the focus in disability discrimination and failure to accommodate cases shifted dramatically away from the threshold issue of whether an employee’s condition constitutes a disability toward the reasonableness of the employer’s actions in accommodating the disability.  While this case illustrates that courts in California and elsewhere are still occasionally willing to scrutinize whether complained of ailments deserve to be classified as disabilities, employers should expect victories on this front to be relatively few and far between.

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George Patterson