"My Boss Stresses Me Out" Is Not a Disability

Good news for employers - the court recently ruled that an employee's claimed inability to work under a supervisor because of anxiety and stress arising out of the supervisor's standard oversight of job performance is not a disability recognized in California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

In Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation 237 Cal.App.4th 78 (2015), the employee told her doctor she was stressed because of her interactions with her supervisor and human resources. The doctor diagnosed her with adjustment disorder, anxiety, and stress.

Plaintiff took a stress-related disability leave of absence from work under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA). She exhausted the leave entitlements available under these laws.

Plaintiff alleged that soon after she returned from leave, her supervisor began singling her out for negative treatment. She claimed the supervisor was friendly with others but curt with her; gave her more work than others; falsely accused her of being irresponsible; and grabbed her arm and yelled at her, causing the employee to suffer a panic attack.

The employee requested a disability accommodation asking for a permanent transfer to a different department and another leave of stress-related leave of absence. The employer granted the requested leave of absence under FEHA because the employee had already exhausted her FMLA/CFRA leave allowances. While on leave, the employee said she could only return if she reported to a different supervisor in a different department.

The employer said she would be terminated unless she provided information either when she would be able to return to her position, or what additional leave as an accommodation would allow her to return to work.

The employee did not provide this information. Instead, her doctor provided a note that the employee was not medically cleared to return to work. The employee testified that she would have been able to return to work if she reported to a different supervisor. The employer terminated her.

The employee sued for disability discrimination under FEHA; failure to engage in the interactive process and make reasonable accommodation for the disability; retaliation for assertion of disability rights; and disability-related wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

The court found that an 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 mental disability under FEHA.

The doctor diagnosed the employee as having adjustment disorder with anxiety and reported her disabling condition as "stress when dealing with her Human Resources and her manager." According to the court, "this is precisely the inability to work under a particular supervisor" that does not rise to a FEHA-recognized disability. The court did not allow the case to proceed to trial.

This case may have turned out differently if the employee's disability was anxiety relating to something different from or in addition to one particular supervisor's routine supervision. An employee could be suffering from psychological issues that are covered under state and federal disability laws. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission observes that covered mental impairments can include major depression, bipolar disorders and anxiety disorders.

If you are unsure whether an employee's condition amounts to a disability, you should call your employment counsel.

Laura C. Hess is a Partner with Kring & Chung, LLP's Irvine, CA office. She can be reached at (949) 261-7700 or lhess@kringandchung.com.

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