Stress Caused by Supervisor Not a Protected Disability

Generally, employers are legally required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities as provided by the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Though the scope of disabilities triggering a duty to accommodate has grown over the years, a recent California Court of Appeal decision has clarified that the scope of protected disabilities is not infinite.

In Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation, the court ultimately rejected the plaintiff employee's claim that stress from working under a specific supervisor qualifies as a protected disability. On this ground, plaintiff did not satisfy her burden in claiming disability discrimination and wrongful termination.

Here, the employee was placed on leave by her physician due to adjustment order, and received a doctor's recommendation that she should be transferred to a different department under a different manager. The plaintiff employee took several months of leave, which prompted her employer to ask when she would be able to return, and whether granting additional leave would be a sufficient accommodation to ensure her return. The employer made it clear that plaintiff would be terminated if she failed to provide this information, which ultimately occurred in this case.

Absent the employer's legitimate business purpose for the termination, which alone would have defeated the plaintiff's wrongful the termination claim, the plaintiff's would have ultimately failed given the court's ruling that "[a]n 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."

In the event that the alleged disability falls within the protected disabilities enumerated in FEHA, failure to respond to an employer's reasonable request for information may bolster an employer's defense that the alleged discriminatory behavior stemmed from a legitimate business purpose.