The California Court of Appeal recently reaffirmed that stress caused by a supervisor is not a disability under the Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"). To prove a violation of FEHA a plaintiff must demonstrate some other source of the stress to demonstrate a disability.
In Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation, the Plaintiff alleged her employer violated FEHA. FEHA requires that employers meet with employees who have disabilities and find a reasonable accommodation for those employees. Failure to engage in this interactive process constitutes a violation of the statute.
The plaintiff alleged she suffered from debilitating stress due to her interactions at work with human resources and her manager. Her physician diagnosed her as having adjustment disorder with anxiety. Her physician cited her supervisors as the cause of her mental issues. The plaintiff took an extended medical leave to address her stress. Her physician recommended she be assigned to different supervisors. Sutter, her employer, did not provide the plaintiff with new supervisors. After months of negotiations, terminated the plaintiff's employment. The plaintiff sued, alleging Sutter failed to meet with her in good faith and accommodate her disability in violation of FEHA.
The California Court of Appeal for the Third District decided stress caused by a supervisor is not a disability under FEHA. To establish a case of mental disability discrimination under FEHA, a plaintiff must show three elements. First, that she suffers from a mental disability. Second, that she is qualified to do the job with or without reasonable accommodation. Third, that the employer took an adverse employment action against her because of the disability.
Here, the court upheld a prior decision ruling the 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 is not a disability under FEHA. The only cause of the plaintiff's stress in this case was her supervisors. Thus, she was not disabled under FEHA. Without a disability there is no need to accommodate the employee and the employer incurs no liability under FEHA.