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By: Allison Shrallow
If you have not muttered “my boss is making me sick” at some point in your life, consider yourself lucky. As for the millions of California employees who have suffered at the hands of a tyrant, while such a situation is indisputably stressful, a California court has recently confirmed stress or anxiety that renders an employee unable to work for a particular supervisor does not constitute a mental disability under Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). This is a small victory for employers in an area of law where they are few and far between.
Stress and anxiety may amount to mental disabilities under the FEHA if they make the achievement of a major life activity—including working—difficult. With the exceedingly large amount of employees who claim to be “stressed” or “anxious,” employers are typically left questioning whether employees are experiencing everyday work-related stress or anxiety, or whether their mental state has reached the level of a disability. Employers generally provide accommodations to employees when they provide medical notes certifying they are disabled, regardless of whether the employee has truly been diagnosed with a stress or anxiety disorder. A California court has now stepped in and declared one instance in which stress and anxiety do not amount to a mental disability, regardless of what the doctor says.
In Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation, Sutter Medical Foundation hired Plaintiff as a clinical assistant in its Shared Services Department. Three years later, Plaintiff reported to her physician she was stressed because of interactions with her direct supervisor. Plaintiff’s doctor diagnosed her with anxiety, and Sutter granted her a leave of absence. Upon Plaintiff’s return, she received a negative performance evaluation, was subjected to negative treatment by her supervisors and her regional manager allegedly grabbed her arm and yelled at her, which caused her to suffer a panic attack and leave work. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a leave of absence and transfer to a different department upon her return. Sutter granted Plaintiff another leave of absence. While Plaintiff was out, her doctor provided a medical note stating she needed to be transferred out of the Shared Services Department under a different regional manager. Sutter terminated Plaintiff on the grounds her doctor failed to provide any information regarding if, and when, she could return to her old position.
California and federal courts have long held employers need not accommodate employees by transferring them to a different supervisor because the current supervisor causes the employee stress-related disorders. In Higgins-Williams, the Court extended these holdings by stating that, to qualify as a disability, an impairment must limit employment generally. That is, if the employee could do the same job for another supervisor, she is not disabled. Traditionally, courts have granted a great amount of deference to medical notes certifying an employee is disabled. The Higgins-Williams case refreshingly calls the bluff. The transitory nature of the plaintiff’s condition—her ability to turn it on or off depending on which supervisor she was assigned—cuts against a court finding she was truly disabled.
Note, the court’s holding in Higgins-Williams is extremely narrow and applies only to situations where an employee allegedly suffers from a mental disability as a result of working under a particular supervisor. Employers should be careful not to mistake this holding as an entitlement to forego engagement in the interactive process, refuse to accommodate or terminate an employee who otherwise suffers from stress or anxiety.