Disability Accommodation

Inability to Work Under Particular Supervisor Not a Disability

A California court recently reaffirmed that the inability to work under a particular supervisor because of anxiety and stress related to the supervisor’s standard oversight of job performance—is not a disability recognized under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA; Gov. Code, § 12900 et seq.).

Higgins-Williams worked as a clinical assistant for Sutter Medical Foundation’s Shared Services doing patient intake. In 2010, Higgins told her doctor she was stressed because of interactions at work with human resources and her manager.  Her doctors diagnosed her as having adjustment disorder with anxiety, and Higgins went on a stress-related leave of absence under the California Family Rights Act and the Family Medical Leave Act. The doctor reported Higgins’ disabling condition as “…stress[] when dealing with her Human Resources and her manager.”

When Higgins returned to work, she received her first negative performance evaluation since she began working at Sutter.  Higgins believed she was being singled out, and that her supervisor “was curt and abrupt with plaintiff, while being open and friendly with plaintiff’s coworkers, and gave plaintiff a disproportionate share of work.”  Plaintiff requested a transfer to a different department for “…forever”), a schedule of 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and another leave of absence.  Plaintiff made the requests in order to accommodate her alleged disability: adjustment disorder with anxiety.

Sutter granted the leave of absence, but refused to transfer her to a different department with a different manager.  Higgins’ doctor continued to extend the leave of absence because Sutter never agreed to transfer Higgins to a different department with a different manager.  The doctor opined that although Higgins could return to work as a clinical assistant, the doctors was concerned about Higgins’ ability to do so in the same department as her regional manager.  Sutter eventually terminated Higgins because there was no indication Higgins would ever be able to return to her job.

Inability to Work Under Particular Supervisor Not a Disability

Higgins sued Sutter for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate.  The appellate court held:

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, citing Hobson v. Raychem Corp. (1999) 73 Cal.App.4th 614, 628 [“the inability to perform one particular job, or to work under a particular supervisor, does not constitute a qualified disability” under FEHA].

Because the court determined the plaintiff did not have a “disability,” the remaining disability-related causes of action were dismissed.

California and federal law define “disability” very broadly, but that doesn’t mean every stress or anxiety requires an accommodation.  When the requested accommodation is a different supervisor, courts are reluctant to hold an employer liable for disability discrimination.  Employers must take every request for a disability accommodation seriously.  When properly conducted, the employer and employee should engage in an interactive process to determine what reasonable accommodations will enable the person to perform the essential functions of the job.

The Nuddleman Law Firm represents employers and employees regarding disability accommodations and discrimination.

Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman of Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C.

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