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Supervisor-Caused Stress is Not a “Disability” under the FEHA

6/1/2015 Articles

The inability to work under a particular supervisor because of anxiety and stress related to the supervisor’s standard oversight of job performance is not a disability recognized under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). A California Court of Appeal panel so held last week in a unanimous decision, Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation.

The defendant employer, Sutter Medical Foundation, had hired plaintiff as a clinical assistant in September 2007.  In June 2010, plaintiff reported to her treating physician, Alexander Chen, M.D., that she was stressed because of interactions at work with human resources and her manager.  Dr. Chen diagnosed plaintiff as having adjustment disorder with anxiety.  Based on Dr. Chen’s diagnosis, Sutter granted plaintiff a stress-related disability leave of absence under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The month-long leave exhausted her available CFRA and FMLA leave entitlements. 

When plaintiff returned to work, she received a negative performance evaluation from her supervisor, which was also signed by a regional manager; this was plaintiff’s only negative evaluation while employed at Sutter.  According to plaintiff, the regional manager began singling plaintiff out for negative treatment, treating her poorly compared to plaintiff’s coworkers and giving her a disproportionate share of work.  Plaintiff also alleged that her supervisor had inaccurately accused her of being irresponsible in caring for her identification badge, and that the regional manager had grabbed plaintiff’s arm and yelled at her.  Plaintiff suffered a panic attack after the latter incident, left work, and never returned.

Sutter granted plaintiff subsequent leaves of absence and engaged with plaintiff in the interactive process.  Plaintiff’s only alleged disability continued to be her adjustment disorder with anxiety. In a status report to Sutter, Dr. Chen stated that plaintiff needed to be transferred out of her current department under a different regional manager, and that if such a transfer occurred, plaintiff would be able to function without limitations. Sutter granted another extension of plaintiff’s leave of absence.  However, Sutter refused to assign plaintiff to a new supervisor and ultimately terminated her employment when she failed to produce information supporting her request for additional leave.  Plaintiff sued, alleging violations of the FEHA.

The trial court summarily adjudicated plaintiff’s cause of action for disability discrimination and failure to prevent such discrimination.  The California Court of Appeal affirmed.  It found that the undisputed facts showed that plaintiff was unable to work under her regional manager or her supervisor because of anxiety and stress related to their standard oversight of plaintiff’s job performance.  The court acknowledged that the California Supreme Court has upheld a broader definition of disability under the FEHA than under the federal counterpart, namely, the FEHA requires a “limitation” upon a major life activity, not a “substantial limitation” as the ADA requires.  But, the court affirmed a California Court of Appeal decision, Hobson v. Raychem Corp., 73 Cal. App. 4th 614 (1999), that an employee’s inability to work under a particular supervisor because of stress related to the supervisor’s standard oversight of the employee’s job performance does not constitute a mental disability under the FEHA.

Higgins should halt the surprisingly common practice by plaintiffs of arguing that the FEHA’s more lenient “disability” standard protects employees whose only limitation is their inability to work with an assigned supervisor.  As Sutter did in this case, employers should still engage in the interactive process with an employee who alleges supervisor-related stress.  But if, through the interactive process, it becomes clear that supervisor-related stress is the only basis for the employee’s alleged disability, the employer need not continue to extend leaves of absence and/or grant the employee’s request for a change of supervisor as an accommodation. 

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