Stress can be a common workplace complaint, and such complaints are often attributed to managers—perhaps unsurprisingly given the managerial role of meeting performance goals. A recent case found that such narrow and particularized stress is not a disability recognized under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). (See Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation (Third Appellate Dist, May 26, 2015), Case No. C073677) [pdf].
Aside from the reason for the plaintiff’s stress, the sequence of events that unfolded following her diagnosis is not atypical for such leaves. The plaintiff, a clinical assistant at Sutter Medical Foundation, reported to her doctor that she was stressed because of interactions at work with human resources and her manager. She was diagnosed as having “adjustment disorder and anxiety.” Based on this diagnosis, Sutter granted her a stress-related disability leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and its California equivalent (CFRA).
Plaintiff took the full amount of leave allowed and returned briefly to her job. When she returned she received a negative performance evaluation from her supervisor, and alleges that she was singled out for negative treatment and a disproportionate share of work. She also alleges that she was inaccurately accused of being irresponsible, and that the regional manager grabbed her arm and yelled at her, after which she suffered a panic attack, left work, and never returned. At that point, plaintiff sought and was given a leave of absence as an accommodation for her “disability.” Over the next five months, plaintiff supplied a variety of doctor’s notes, first stating that she could come back to work only if assigned to a different supervisor, and then that she was “willing to try” to return to work under her old manager. Sutter finally terminated her employment.
The court made short shrift of all her disability claims, stating explicitly 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 disability under FEHA.” The court also dismissed her claims for discrimination for using FMLA/CFRA leave, noting that it was undisputed that she had exhausted her entitlements under these leaves, and had been given an additional five months of leave thereafter. Given that period of time and her equivocation about her ability to return even then, the court held that Sutter had a legitimate business reason for terminating her employment, and she could not raise an issue of fact that it was pretextual.
Should California employers rejoice at this result, seeming to finally put some limits on what constitutes a disability in California? Probably not. If anything, the case illustrates the lengths to which a prudent employer must go before terminating an employee with a claimed disability, especially one relating to mental health. And, with only a slight variation in facts (for example, that it was not her supervisor per se that was causing her stress, but the particular type of job she held, or if she had stated more affirmatively that she could return to her old job), the case could have gone the other way. The bottom line: an employer still needs to proceed with extreme caution on any claim for mental disability in California or elsewhere.