California Court of Appeals Holds that Stress and Anxiety Caused by a Supervisor’s Standard Performance Oversight Does Not Qualify as a Mental Disability

In a blow to those employees who suffer from stress and anxiety caused by abusive employers, a California Court of Appeals has determined 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 mental disability” under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

In Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation 14 C.D.O.S. 5245 (2015), the Plaintiff worked as a clinical assistant for Sutter Medical Foundation for nearly three years when her doctor diagnosed her as having “adjustment disorder with anxiety” and further reported that her disabling condition was “stress when dealing with her Human Resources and manager.” Plaintiff took a medical leave and as soon as she returned, her manager gave her a negative performance review (the first negative review she received at Sutter). On her second day back at work, Plaintiff’s manager grabbed her arm and yelled at her and Plaintiff suffered a panic attack as a result. Plaintiff’s doctor put her on another medical leave.

Plaintiff then requested, as a reasonable accommodation for her disability, to transfer to a different department so that she could work under a different supervisor and manager. Although Plaintiff and her doctor repeatedly reported to Sutter that she could return to work in a different department under a different manager, Sutter instead chose to extend her medical leave and eventually terminated her employment rather than accommodate her with a transfer.

Plaintiff sued Sutter claiming, among other things, that Sutter discriminated against her on the basis of her disability (adjustment disorder with anxiety) and failed to reasonably accommodate her disability. The Court of Appeals decided that Plaintiff could not pursue her claims because she did not have a “disability” under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

In coming to its decision, the Court emphasized that Plaintiff’s only claimed disability was stress and anxiety caused by “standard oversight of plaintiff’s job performance.” This is an important point of emphasis for any employee who claims to need an accommodation due to a mental disability.

If you are a California employee and you have a mental disability that is caused by something other than “standard oversight of performance,” you may still be entitled to an accommodation, which could include a job transfer. Therefore, you may want to consult with an employment attorney to find out whether you are entitled to a reasonable accommodation at your job.

June 3, 2015 Heather Conger