California employers may finally rejoice: there is now an employer-friendly state court decision, Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Med. Found., 237 Cal. App. 4th 78 (2015). The case takeaway is straightforward: an employee’s claimed inability to work under a supervisor because of the supervisor’s causing the employee anxiety and stress during standard oversight of the employee’s performance, does not entitle the employee to a viable claim for disability discrimination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).
The case involved a clinical assistant who worked in a company’s shared services department. She provided the company with a report from her physician that indicated she was suffering from “adjustment disorder with anxiety,” which her physician described as a disabling stress condition caused by her interactions with her manager and company Human Resources (HR) representatives. In response, that company granted her a 30-day, stress-related leave of absence. But after she returned to work, she received her first negative performance evaluation. She also asserted experiencing additional conflicts with her manager, who allegedly was “curt and abrupt” to her during their interactions, gave her a disproportionate share of work, and, one day, yelled at her, causing her to suffer a panic attack and leave work, never to return. Instead, she submitted a disability accommodation request for a transfer to a different department (for “forever”) and an additional leave of absence. The company agreed to extend her leave several times, but it ultimately advised her that it would terminate her employment unless she provided information regarding (1) her anticipated return to work date, and (2) whether additional leave as an accommodation would effectuate her return to work. When she failed to supply this information, the company terminated her employment, and she filed suit.
Her suit alleged disability discrimination under FEHA, violation of the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), wrongful termination, and related claims. The Court of Appeal (Court) affirmed the lower court’s ruling for the employer on summary judgment, holding that the employee did not qualify as “disabled” for purposes of her FEHA or wrongful termination 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 mental disability under FEHA.” The Court noted that the outcome could be different if the supervisor was doing something other than “standard oversight of job performance,” but that there was no such evidence in the case. The Court further held that the employee’s CFRA claim was properly dismissed because her testimony—that she did not think she could have returned to work but was willing to try—failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the company unlawfully failed to reinstate her following her leave.
Takeaway for California Employers
The Higgins-Williams case means that employers are not required to grant an employee’s request to transfer to a different supervisor as a disability accommodation, even if the employee submits medical documentation that working under a current supervisor causes him or her to be “stressed.” Of course, such situations still call for employer caution: all employee complaints about supervisor-induced stress should be documented and investigated to ensure that the supervisor has not engaged in misconduct beyond standard oversight of employee job performance. But absent any such misconduct, employers retain discretion over who supervises their employees.