Is Supervisor-Induced Stress a Protected Disability? California Appellate Court Says No

2 minute read | June.02.2015

Employers often encounter challenging questions regarding their duty to accommodate employees who are diagnosed with stress, anxiety, or other mental health conditions that allegedly impact job performance absent accommodation.  But what if an employee claims that the stress of working with a particular supervisor is disabling, and that a transfer is the only reasonable accommodation?  The California Court of Appeal has provided some measure of clarity, in a recent opinion holding that anxiety and stress claimed by an employee as a result of working under a particular supervisor does not constitute a disability under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Med. Found., Case No. C073677 (May 26, 2015).

In that case, the plaintiff reported to her treating physician that she was stressed because of work interactions with human resources and her manager.  She subsequently was diagnosed as having adjustment disorder with anxiety, and applied for and was granted a six-week leave of absence.  Upon her return to work, she received her first negative performance evaluation and was allegedly subjected to negative treatment which caused her to have a panic attack.  Her doctor then recommended that she be transferred to another department and placed under a different manager’s supervision.  After several further leaves of absence, she was terminated when she failed to provide a date certain by which she could return to her existing position.

The trial court granted summary judgement to her employer, which was affirmed on appeal.  The appellate court found that the plaintiff had failed to establish even a prima facie case of disability discrimination, 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 disability under FEHA.”  This ruling reaffirms that doctrinal developments have not altered the fundamental principle announced in Hobson v. Raychem Corp., 73 Cal. App. 4th 614 (1999): an employee cannot state a claim under FEHA for disability discrimination simply by contending that it is too stressful to work under a particular supervisor, or that the failure to transfer her to a different supervisor constitutes discrimination or failure to accommodate.