California Appellate Court Holds Supervisor-Induced Stress Is Not a Disability

California Appellate Court Holds Supervisor-Induced Stress Is Not a Disability

Employers in California with five or more employees must be concerned with both mental and physical disability discrimination allegations under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  The definition of mental disability is expanding.  Offering some hope to employers, however, California’s Third District Court of Appeal in Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation, 2015 Cal. App. Lexis 455 (May 26, 2015) found no disability where the plaintiff was diagnosed by her treating physician as having an adjustment disorder with anxiety resulting from dealing with Human Resources and her manager.  Sutter granted Plaintiff Michaelin Higgins-Williams leave under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) based on this diagnosis, but she exhausted the maximum amount of leave she could take under these laws. Ms. Higgins-Williams then returned to work briefly.  She received a negative performance evaluation by her supervisor and alleged she was singled out and given an inappropriate amount of work.  Ms. Higgins-Williams claimed her manager grabbed her arm and yelled at her, after which she suffered a panic attack and left work, never to return.

Sutter allowed Ms. Higgins-Williams five months leave of absence based on a variety of doctor’s notes and as an accommodation for her disability.  The doctor’s notes first stated that Ms. Higgins-Williams could come back to work only if given a different supervisor, and later that Plaintiff was “willing to try” and return to work under her old supervisor.   Sutter requested she provide information within one week regarding whether she would be able to return to her clinical assistant position or that additional leave would effectuate such a return.  Plaintiff failed to provide the requested information and she was terminated.  Ms. Higgins-Williams’ lawsuit included a claim for disability discrimination brought under the FEHA and a claim that she was wrongfully terminated for using CFRA and FMLA leave and in violation of public policy.

The Court of Appeal found that Plaintiff’s cause of action for disability discrimination failed because she was not disabled.   “Disability” under the FEHA is more broadly defined than it is under the Americans with Disability Act of 1990 (ADA). Under the FEHA, a “disability” must limit a major life activity while under the ADA, the “disability” must substantially limit a major life activity.  Despite California’s broader standard, the Court in Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation ruled that the inability to work with 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 California’s disability statute.  Not being able to work stress free with a particular supervisor is not the same as being unable to do one’s job without accommodation, which is what the FEHA is meant to address.  Plaintiff’s causes of action under CFRA and FMLA failed because she had already exhausted her leave.  Her claim that Sutter violated public policy also failed because the Court believed that Sutter had a legitimate reason for the termination. The Plaintiff was equivocal about whether she could come back to work under her supervisor.  Sutter provided Plaintiff five months of leave in addition to the maximum allowed under CFRA and FMLA.  While not expressly stated, the Court implicitly found Sutter had a legitimate business reason in being able to depend on its employees coming to work.

While the result of this decision is favorable to employers, caution should still be exercised when dealing with alleged mental disability as employment cases are generally quite fact specific.  It is also worth mentioning, that if a fitness for duty exam is warranted, the examination must be limited to the effect of the employee’s condition on his or her ability to perform the essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodation.  Appropriate legal advice should be sought before negotiating in this uncertain landscape.

By: Susan A. DeNardo

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