Recently, the California Court of Appeal reaffirmed in Michaelin Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation that an employee’s 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”).  

Sutter Medical Foundation (“Defendant”) hired the Plaintiff in 2007 as a clinical assistant.  In 2010, Plaintiff was diagnosed as having adjustment disorder with anxiety as a result of being stressed at work because of interactions with her manager and human resources.  For approximately five months, Defendant continuously granted Plaintiff a stress-related (disability) leave of absence from work under California’s Moore-Brown Roberti Family Rights Act (“CFRA”) and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). 

On January 24, 2011, Defendant told Plaintiff that if she did not provide information as to whether she would be able to return to her clinical assistant position and/or information to support the conclusion that additional leave as an accommodation would effectuate Plaintiff’s return as a clinical assistant, her employment would be terminated on February 1.  Ultimately, the only information provided by Plaintiff’s physician was that Plaintiff was not medically cleared to return to work.  Defendant terminated Plaintiff on February 1, 2011. 

Plaintiff alleged four causes of action under FEHA and two causes of action under CFRA.  The trial court concluded that Plaintiff did not suffer from a FEHA-recognized mental disability, and thus granted summary adjudication of Plaintiff’s cause of action alleging discrimination based on her disability.  FEHA states, “It is an unlawful employment practice . . . [f]or an employer, because of . . . mental disability . . . to discriminate against [an employee] . . . in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”  Under FEHA, a qualifying “mental disability” includes “any mental or psychological disorder . . . , such as . . . emotional or mental illness” that “limits a major life activity.”  One requirement to establish a prima facie case of mental disability under FEHA is that a plaintiff must show that she suffers from a mental disability.  Based on Plaintiff’s physician’s diagnosis, Plaintiff’s reported disabling condition was the inability to work under a particular supervisor.  The court held that this does not rise to the level of a FEHA-recognized disability .

Discussing the California Supreme Court’s decision in Hobson v. Raychem Corp., 73 Cal. App. 4th 614 (1999), the Court of Appeal noted that although this case has been disapproved of to the extent it held or suggested that “disability” under FEHA requires a “substantial limit” on a major life activity, it has not been questioned as to its conclusion 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.”  Because Plaintiff’s disabling anxiety was allegedly the result of working under a particular supervisor, the court held that the undisputed facts showed that Plaintiff could not establish the element of a disability.  Moreover, the court concluded that because Plaintiff could not make a showing of a disability, her other disability-based causes of action failed.

Additionally, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment as to Plaintiff’s alleged causes of action based on discrimination for using CFRA/FMLA leave and for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.  The court concluded that the undisputed facts showed that Defendant granted Plaintiff accommodation-based leave for nearly five additional months, and informed Plaintiff that she would be terminated unless she provided information to Defendant as to whether she would be able to return to work in her clinical assistant position.  The court found that Plaintiff did not provide  such information.  Likewise, Plaintiff was not wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy because Defendant offered “a legitimate reason for an adverse employment action” against Plaintiff and Plaintiff did not raise “an issue of fact that this reason was pretextual.”  Accordingly, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.