Last week, in Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation, the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Third Appellate District, upheld the trial court’s granting of summary judgment for an employer where it determined that an employee’s inability to work for a particular supervisor, because of anxiety and stress related to the supervisor’s standard oversight of job performance, is not a disability recognized under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).
In Sutter Medical Foundation, Michaelin Higgins-Williams worked for Sutter as a clinical assistant. She reported to an immediate supervisor, who in turn, reported to a regional manager. Higgins-Williams reported to her treating physician that she was stressed because of her interactions with her managers. Her physician diagnosed her with having adjustment disorder with anxiety, and specifically noted that her stress resulted from “dealing with her Human Resources and her manager.”
After exhausting her available CFRA and FMLA leave entitlements, Higgins-Williams briefly returned to work. Soon after her return, she suffered a panic attack while at work, and never returned to her job. Sutter granted Higgins-Williams multiple leaves of absence. Status reports from the employee’s physician indicated that she could return to work “without limitations” if she worked under different supervisors.
Thereafter, Higgins-Williams’ physician informed Sutter that she could not return to work and asked that she be placed on light duty to start two months later. Sutter responded by informing Higgins-Williams that her physician did not provide any information about when she could return to work as a clinical assistant, that there was no information to support a conclusion that additional leave would ultimately lead to her return as a clinical assistant, and that if she did not provide such information within a week, she would be terminated. When Sutter did not receive this information by the deadline, it terminated Higgins-Williams.
Higgins-Williams alleged four causes of actions under FEHA relating to her mental disability, including disability discrimination, failure to engage in the interactive process, retaliation, and wrongful termination. For each cause of action, she was required to establish that she suffered from a mental disability.
FEHA provides broad protections against disability discrimination for California employees. A qualifying “mental disability” under FEHA includes “any mental or physiological disorder…such as…emotional or mental illness” that “limits a major life activity.” In order to establish a prima face case of mental disability discrimination under FEHA, a plaintiff must show that (1) she suffers from a mental disability; (2) she is otherwise qualified to do the job with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) she was subjected to an adverse employment action because of the disability.
Relying on past precedent, the Court ruled that an employee’s inability to work for a particular supervisor because of anxiety and stress related to standard supervision regarding the employee’s job performance is not a covered disability under FEHA. Given the ruling that Higgins-Williams did not have a FEHA-qualifying mental disability, each of her claims failed.
The lesson from this decision is that if an employee’s sole claim of a disability is stress or anxiety related to standard oversight by a specific supervisor(s), an employer need not provide accommodations to the employee. That being said, employers should remain sensitive to the big picture and engage in a timely, good faith interactive process for employees or applicants who request reasonable accommodations that extend beyond the mere inability to work with a particular supervisor.