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June 8, 2015

Stress from Your Boss? California Court Says Supervisor-Induced Stress is Not a Disability

In today’s workplace, employers are frequently confronted with unique disability challenges stemming from stress-related employee complaints.  In many instances, the stress complaints are related to managers or supervisors who are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring the employee meets performance goals, or after the employee is disciplined or receives a negative performance review.
Given the ever expanding definition of a disability, California employers are often uncertain as to their obligations under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) to accommodate such stress-related complaints.  Is an employer obligated to grant the employee time off work?  Is an employer required to transfer the employee to a new supervisor or a different department?  Are there other accommodations the employer must provide to comply with the FEHA?

As with most areas involving the disability laws, the answers will likely turn on the individual facts and circumstances.  However, the California Court of Appeal in Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation (Sacramento County Superior Court, Case No. C073677) recently provided some guidance to employers when they are confronted with supervisor-induced stress claims.  In this decision, the court narrowly held that “an 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 the FEHA.
Factual Background
In September 2007, defendant Sutter Medical Foundation (“Sutter”) hired Michaelin Higgins-Williams (“Higgins-Williams”) as a clinical assistant in Sutter’s Shared Services Department (the “Department”).  In June 2010, Higgins-Williams reported to her treating physician that she was stressed because of interactions at work with her supervisor and the regional manager. The doctor diagnosed Higgins-Williams as having adjustment disorder with anxiety because of “stress when dealing with her Human Resources and her manager.”  Based on Higgins-Williams’ treating physician’s diagnosis, Sutter granted Higgins-Williams a leave of absence under the California Family Rights Act (“CFRA”) and Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) from June 28, 2010 through August 2, 2010.  Higgins-Williams exhausted her available CFRA and FMLA leave entitlements.
Higgins-Williams alleged that after she returned to work on August 3, 2010, her supervisor and the regional manager gave her a negative performance evaluation, singled her out for negative treatment, treated her in a curt and abrupt manner, and assigned her a disproportionate share of work.  Higgins-Williams further alleged that a few weeks later on September 9, 2010, the regional manager grabbed her arm and yelled at her, after which 
Higgins-Williams suffered a panic attack, left work, and never returned.

Pursuant to Higgins-Williams’ physician’s recommendation, Sutter granted Higgins-Williams’ request for a leave of absence from September 9 through October 31, 2010.  In a status report to Sutter on November 4, 2010, the treating physician stated that Higgins-Williams needed to be “transferred out of the Shared Services Department and assigned to a different regional manager and that if such a transfer occurred, Higgins-Williams would be able to function without limitations.” 

Rather than transferring Higgins-Williams, Sutter extended her leave of absence through December 16, 2010.  Sutter granted additional extensions of leave thereafter until Higgins-Williams was eventually terminated on February 1, 2011.  At this time, Higgins-Williams had already testified in deposition that she was unable to work for her supervisor or the regional manager and was only “willing to try” to return to work.

In Higgins-Williams’ lawsuit against Sutter, Higgins-Williams asserted four causes of action for disability discrimination, failure to engage in the interactive process and provide reasonable accommodations, retaliation, and wrongful termination.  Higgins-Williams asserted two additional causes of action for alleged CFRA/FMLA violations.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s granting of summary judgment as to the FEHA-related claims because 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 disability under FEHA.”  Higgins-Williams’ physician diagnosed her as having adjustment disorder with anxiety, and reported Higgins-Williams’ disabling condition as “stress when dealing with her Human Resources and her manager.” The court ruled that this is precisely “the inability . . . to work under a particular supervisor” that does not rise to a FEHA-recognized disability.
The court further held that the CFRA/FMLA claims were properly dismissed because the undisputed facts showed that Sutter granted Higgins-Williams nearly five additional months of accommodation-based leave after she exhausted her CFRA/FMLA leave.  Furthermore, given the additional leave that was granted as an accommodation and the uncertainty surrounding Higgins-Williams’ ability to return to work, the court held that Sutter had legitimate reasons for terminating Higgins-Williams on February 1, 2011, and Higgins-Williams failed to raise an issue of fact that this reason was pretextual.

Although the holding in Higgins-Williams is positive news for employers in that it confirms that FEHA’s protections do not apply to employees who are stressed out by their supervisor, employers should ensure that they do not quickly disregard these claims either.  Rather, to minimize the risk of liability under the FEHA, employers should continue to engage in the interactive process and provide reasonable accommodations where possible.  If the interactive process reveals that an employee’s stress and anxiety is solely caused by a supervisor’s standard oversight of his or her job performance, employers may now have grounds to deny a requested accommodation under the ruling in Higgins-Williams.

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