Vol. 30 No. 13 Stress Caused by a Supervisor’s Oversight is not a Disability

On May 26, 2015 the Third District Court of Appeals held, in Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation, that “an 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 in California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA; Gov. Code, § 12900 et seq.).” As a result, the Court, in an action for disability discrimination and wrongful termination, affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendant employer.


“In September 2007, defendant Sutter Medical Foundation (Sutter) hired plaintiff Michaelin Higgins-Williams as a clinical assistant in Sutter’s Shared Services Department . . . . The Department’s clinical assistants work as ‘floaters’ doing patient intake.”

“In June 2010, plaintiff reported to her treating physician, Alexander Chen, M.D., that she was stressed because of interactions at work with human resources and her manager. Dr. Chen diagnosed plaintiff as having adjustment disorder with anxiety.  Based on Dr. Chen’s diagnosis, Sutter granted plaintiff a stress-related (disability) leave of absence from work under the CFRA [California Family Rights Act] and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), from June 28, 2010, through August 2, 2010. Dr. Chen reported plaintiff’s disabling condition as ‘stress[] when dealing with her Human Resources and her manager.’”

After exhausting her leave time, she returned to work and received a negative performance evaluation; the only negative evaluation she received while employed at Sutter.  She claimed that

her manager treated her differently and “was curt and abrupt with plaintiff, while being open and friendly with plaintiff’s coworkers, and gave plaintiff a disproportionate share of work.”

Furthermore, the plaintiff claimed that “her supervisor Prince inaccurately accused plaintiff of being irresponsible in the care of her identification badge. And on that same day, regional manager Perry grabbed plaintiff’s arm and yelled at her, after which plaintiff suffered a panic attack, left work, and never returned.”

“In mid-September 2010, plaintiff submitted to Sutter a disability accommodation request form, requesting a transfer to a different department (for, ‘forever’), a schedule of 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and, pursuant to Dr. Chen’s recommendation, a leave of absence from September 9 through October 31, 2010. Sutter granted the requested leave of absence.”

Her doctor “stated that plaintiff needed to be transferred out of the Shared Services Department under a different regional manager, and that if such a transfer occurred, plaintiff would be able to function without limitations. Sutter extended plaintiff’s leave of absence through December 16, 2010.”

In January, 2011, her doctor also stated that she was able to return to work in a light duty position.  Sutter informed her that absent any additional information as to when she could resume full duties, her employment would be terminated on February 1, 2011, which it was.

She ultimately filed suit, alleging as a cause of action that Sutter discriminated against her based on a disability and failed to prevent such discrimination, in violation of FEHA.  In her deposition, plaintiff testified she did not feel she could have returned to work in the Shared Services Department with regional manager Perry or supervisor Prince on February 1, 2011.

Court Discussion

“FEHA states, as relevant, ‘It is an unlawful employment practice . . . [f]or an employer, because of . . . mental disability . . . to discriminate against [an employee] . . . in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.’ A qualifying ‘mental disability’ under FEHA includes ‘any mental or psychological disorder . . . , such as . . . emotional or mental illness’ that ‘limits a major life activity.’”

“To establish a prima facie case of mental disability discrimination under FEHA, a plaintiff must show the following elements: (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.”

The Court of Appeal held that, “the undisputed facts show plaintiff does not suffer from a FEHA-recognized mental disability; consequently, the trial court properly granted summary adjudication of this cause of action because plaintiff cannot establish the element of a disability.”  The Court found 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.”  (Emphasis added.)

The Court acknowledges that “the inability to perform one particular job . . . does not constitute a [FEHA]qualified disability, has been questioned (by a Ninth Circuit case).”  Nonetheless, “(w)hat no decision has disapproved or questioned, however, is . . . 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 FEHA.”  (Emphasis in original.)  As a result of finding that “plaintiff did not have a legally recognized mental disability,” all of her other causes of action failed.


The Court notes that “(u)ndisputed facts also show that Sutter granted plaintiff . . . nearly five additional months of leave after plaintiff exhausted her CFRA/FMLA leave. Sutter informed plaintiff that she would be terminated February 1, 2011, unless she provided information by January 31, 2011, either as to when she would be able to return to her clinical assistant position, or that additional leave as an accommodation would effectuate such a return. Plaintiff did not provide this information.”

It is important to emphasize that the employer did not act in an arbitrary or capricious manner in addressing the plaintiff’s concerns and, ultimately, terminating her employment.  As the Court points out, “(t)he undisputed facts and plaintiff’s deposition testimony . . . show that Sutter had a legitimate reason for terminating plaintiff on February 1, 2011; and plaintiff has not raised an issue of fact that this reason was pretextual.”

As in all situations where an employee claims that he or she was subjected to discriminatory treatment, the burden will shift to the employer to show justified, non-discriminatory reasons for the adverse action taken.  In the instant case, the Court identifies all of the attempts by the employer to work with, and accommodate, the employee.  However, the Court also finds that the employee was not cooperative and, furthermore, did not establish that the reasons for terminating her employment were pretexual.

As with all legal issues, it is imperative that you confer with, and receive guidance from, your agency’s legal counsel, especially when situations such as this one arise.

As always, if you wish to discuss this case in greater detail, feel free to contact me at (714) 446 – 1400 or via email at mjm@jones-mayer.com.

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