Why it matters

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) does not recognize anxiety or stress due to a manager’s supervision as a disability, an appellate panel in the state recently concluded. A clinical assistant at a medical center alleged that she began visiting her physician because of stress at work due to interactions with her manager. After being diagnosed as having adjustment disorder with anxiety, the employee took a disability leave. Not long after she returned to work, the employee suffered a panic attack when her manager yelled at her—and never came back. She remained on disability leave for another four months before the employer fired her. The employee then sued for wrongful termination under FEHA, but the court affirmed a grant of summary judgment for the medical center, ruling that the employee’s stated disability—“an inability to work under a particular supervisor because of anxiety and stress related to the supervisor’s standard oversight of job performance”—was not a disability recognized by FEHA and therefore not an actionable claim.

Detailed discussion

Michaelin Higgins-Williams was hired by Sutter Medical Foundation in September 2007 as a clinical assistant. Her immediate supervisor was Debbie Prince, who in turn reported to the regional manager, Norma Perry.

In June 2010, Higgins-Williams reported to her treating physician that she was stressed because of interactions at work with human resources and her manager. Diagnosed as having adjustment disorder with anxiety, she requested and was granted a disability leave from work under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and California’s counterpart, the Moore-Brown-Roberti Family Rights Act (CFRA).

After exhausting her leave, Higgins-Williams returned to work in August. She received a negative performance evaluation from Prince, signed by Perry. She claimed that she was singled out for negative treatment by Perry, who was “curt and abrupt” with her while “open and friendly” with other employees. In September, the employee said Prince inaccurately accused her of being irresponsible with her identification badge and Perry “grabbed her arm and yelled at her.”

Higgins-Williams suffered a panic attack as a result and left work. She was granted a leave of absence and submitted a request to transfer to a different department for “forever.” Sutter continued to extend her leave of absence. In January 2011, the medical center requested documentation about whether Higgins-Williams was medically cleared to return to work by February 1, 2011. When the information was not provided, Higgins-Williams was terminated.

She filed suit under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and the CFRA. A trial court granted summary judgment for Sutter, finding the plaintiff failed to allege a recognized disability.

An appellate panel affirmed. Three elements are required to establish a prima facie case of mental disability discrimination under FEHA, the court explained: that the plaintiff suffers from a mental disability; she is otherwise qualified to do the job with or without reasonable accommodation; and she was subjected to an adverse employment action because of the disability.

Higgins-Williams could not advance past the first element, the court said.

“[T]he plaintiff employee’s alleged disability—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 in California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act,” the appellate panel wrote, citing Hobson v. Raychem Corp., 73 Cal. App. 4th 614 (1999).

Plaintiff and her treating physician “acknowledged on several occasions, both directly and through requests for a transfer from [Sutter], that plaintiff was unable to work under her regional manager Perry or her supervisor Prince because of anxiety and stress related to their standard oversight of plaintiff’s job performance,” the court said. “This is precisely ‘the inability … to work under a particular supervisor’ that Hobson says does not rise to a FEHA-recognized disability.”

While Hobson has been disapproved on one point—that FEHA requires a “substantial limit” on a major life activity—and questioned on another by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the central tenet of the case has not been overruled, the panel explained.

“What no decision has disapproved or questioned, however, is the Hobson point directly on point here—i.e., 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 court wrote.

Given this conclusion, the panel said the plaintiff’s other disability-based causes of action also failed.

“The undisputed facts and plaintiff’s deposition testimony … show that Sutter had a legitimate reason for terminating plaintiff on February 1, 2011; and plaintiff has not raised an issue of fact that this reason was pretextual,” the court added.

Even the temporal proximity between plaintiff’s accommodation requests and her termination failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact “when viewed against the undisputed facts showing that Sutter, before terminating her, granted plaintiff nearly five additional months of leave (accommodation-based) after she had exhausted her CFRA/FMLA leave, and further asked plaintiff for information whether additional leave would effectuate her return as a clinical assistant—information plaintiff did not provide,” the court said.

The appellate panel remanded the case to the trial court for a determination of attorney’s fees and costs, particularly in light of a new opinion from the California Supreme Court raising the standard for employers to recover costs to require that a discrimination suit was “objectively groundless.”

To read the opinion in Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation, click here.