In response to standard negative performance feedback from a supervisor, an employee takes a leave of absence due to stress and submits a medical note stating that the employee must be transferred to another department as an accommodation. Under California law, must a company grant such an accommodation? According to a recent California Court of Appeal decision, Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation, the answer is no.

Background

Michaelin Higgins-Williams worked as a clinical assistant at Sutter Medical Foundation. Three years into her employment, negative interactions with human resources and her manager began to make her feel stressed. In response, Sutter granted Higgins-Williams’ request for leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). During this absence, she exhausted her available FMLA and CFRA leave entitlements.

On the first day Higgins-Williams returned to work, her supervisor handed her a negative performance evaluation—the only negative evaluation she had received at Sutter.

According to Higgins-Williams, in the following month, her supervisor and regional manager began treating her poorly. Higgins-Williams alleged that the regional manager was curt and abrupt with her (but was open and friendly with her coworkers), and she alleged that he gave her a disproportionate share of work. Higgins-Williams accused her supervisor of mishandling her identification badge. The final straw, according to Higgins-Williams was when the regional manager grabbed her arm and yelled at her.

After that event, Higgins-Williams suffered a panic attack. Her doctor diagnosed her with adjustment disorder and anxiety, and stated that she could function at work only if the company transferred her to a different department under the director of a new supervisor and regional manager. She then submitted a disability accommodation request form, requesting a schedule change, a two-month leave of absence, and a transfer to a different department “for forever.”

Sutter granted the leave of absence, which it extended several times. The employee’s doctor stated that she could function at work only if the company transferred her to a different department where she would not be under the direction of the supervisor and regional manager.

Five months into the leave, Sutter warned Higgins-Williams that her employment would be terminated unless she submitted information supporting conclusion that additional leave as an accommodation would effectuate her return to her former position. In response, her doctor informed Sutter that Higgins-Williams was not cleared to return to work and required more psychotherapy and medication. However, neither the doctor nor Higgins-Williams gave any indication of a return date. Sutter discharged the employee a few days later.

Higgins-Williams sued Sutter for violating California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). She alleged disability discrimination, failure to engage in the interactive process, failure to make reasonable accommodation for the disability, retaliation, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

The trial court granted Sutter’s motion for summary judgment and the California Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District affirmed. The appellate court held that “the 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.”

In its decision, the court relied on a 1999 California Court of Appeal case, Hobson v. Raychem Corp. that had a similar holding. The court noted that Higgins-Williams’s treating physician acknowledged on several occasions that she was unable to work under her supervisor and regional manager because of anxiety and stress related to their standard oversight of her job performance. “This is precisely ‘the ‘inability . . . to work under a particular supervisor’ that Hobsonsays does not rise to a FEHA-recognized disability.”

Practical Impact

The narrow holding in this case is that the inability to work under a particular supervisor is not a disability, and under the circumstances of this case, a company is not obligated to accommodate a transfer request. This ruling sensibly addresses the not uncommon scenario in which an employee flees the workplace alleging that he or she is ill rather than respond to a supervisor’s performance criticisms.

In addition, in this case, the company granted five months of time off beyond the 12 weeks of leave available under the FMLA and CFRA. Only after an extended leave and after asking but not receiving information that additional leave time would effectuate a return to work did the company discharge the employee.  Finally, the plaintiff failed to produce any evidence that the manager’s conduct was intended to punish the employee for asserting leave rights.  Both of these circumstances provided additional support for the employer’s position.