Dislike of Your Boss Is Not a Disability

by Michelle Ferber and Ben McDonald

The California Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District upheld a Sacramento County Court’s grant of summary judgment for an employer in a case involving an employee who sought disability claims for the anxiety and stress she allegedly suffered due to the standard supervision of her employer.

Defendant Sutter Medical Foundation hired Plaintiff Michaelin Higgins-Williams as a clinical assistant in 2007 to perform patient intakes at Sutter’s Shared Service Department.  In June of 2010, Higgins-Williams reported to her doctor that she suffered stress and anxiety at work due to interaction with human resources and her supervisor and regional manager.  Her physician diagnosed Higgins-Williams with adjustment disorder with anxiety, which she claimed prevented her from being able to return to work.  After more than 6 months of leave, Higgins-Williams was eventually terminated.

Higgins-Williams filed her lawsuit against Sutter alleging four causes of action under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) for disability discrimination, failure to engage in the interactive process and make reasonable accommodation for her disability, retaliation for her assertion of her disability rights, and disability-related wrongful termination in violation of public policy.  Higgins-Williams also alleged discrimination causes of action for using her CFRA leave and CFRA-related wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

The California Court of Appeals relied upon the legal precedent 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 disability under FEHA.”  Essentially, the anxiety and stress Higgins-Williams alleged she suffered due to the standard supervision of her superiors does not rise to the level of a disability recognized by FEHA.  As a result of the failure of her anxiety to constitute a protected disability under the law, the appellate court reasoned, the rest of her FEHA disability claims also fail in domino fashion.

As for the claims regarding discrimination and wrongful termination in violation of public policy for using her CFRA leave, the appellate court ruled that there was no genuine issue of material fact to overcome the trial courts grant of summary judgment.

In this case, Higgins-Williams had long exhausted her statutorily protected leave under the CFRA and therefore Sutter had a lawful reason to terminate her employment.  When asked to provide information regarding whether additional leave would allow her to return to work, Higgins-Williams did not do so.  In short, Higgins-Williams established the basic claim alleging she was fired for taking her leave, and Sutter then offered the lawful reason for her termination – that she had exhausted the leave to which she was entitled.  It then became her turn to raise a genuine issue of material fact that despite Sutter’s stated reason for firing her, the reason given was merely pretextual.  Higgins-Williams did not do so.  As the court found that she could not do so, it upheld the dismissal of the case because there would be nothing for a trial to accomplish.

The case was, however, remanded back down to the trial court on the narrow issue of which party should bear the costs of the lawsuit.  While generally a party who loses in cases such as this is required to pay for the costs and fees borne by the opposing party, the precedent affirmed this year by Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District may stand for the proposition that “an unsuccessful FEHA plaintiff should not be ordered to pay the defendant’s fees or costs unless the plaintiff brought or continued litigating the action without an objective basis for believing it had potential merit.”  This matter was sent back down to the trial court to determine whether this rule will apply forgiving Higgins-Williams from bearing the financial burden of bringing her unsuccessful lawsuit against Sutter.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.