Inability to Work Under One Boss Is Not a Qualified Disability

In Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation, the Third Appellate District relied upon the repeatedly challenged holding of the First Appellate District in Hobson v. Raychem Corp. (1999) 73 Cal.App.4th 614 (“Hobson”) that “the inability to perform one particular job, or to work under a particular supervisor, does not constitute a qualified [mental] disability” under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”).

Since 2007, the plaintiff in Higgins-Williams worked as a clinical assistant in the employ of the defendant Sutter Medical Foundation (“Sutter”). In June 2010, the plaintiff’s doctor diagnosed her with “adjustment disorder with anxiety” when plaintiff sought treatment for stress from her interactions at work with human resources and her supervisor. Upon returning from the maximum leave of absence permitted by FEHA and CFRA, the plaintiff received her first ever negative evaluation from her supervisor in August 2010 and was accused of being irresponsible with her ID badge. In her complaint plaintiff alleged that thereafter she was physically grabbed by her regional manager in September 2010.

Pursuant to her doctor’s recommendation and as granted by Sutter, the plaintiff took another leave of absence, again due to “adjustment disorder with anxiety.” She also requested a department transfer. Sutter granted the leave of absence on two occasions. However, when the treating physician provided inconsistent recommendations whether plaintiff was ready to return to work or needed a transfer, Sutter advised the plaintiff on January 24, 2011 that if she did not provide information that an additional leave as an accommodation would effectuate her return as a clinical assistant, her employment would be terminated. On February 1, 2011, Sutter terminated the plaintiff, who then sued Sutter for disability discrimination under the FEHA.

The trial court granted summary adjudication in favor of Sutter on the basis that the plaintiff’s alleged disability – an inability to work under a particular supervisor because of anxiety and stress related to the supervisor’s standard oversight of job performance – did not qualify as a “mental disability” under FEHA. On appeal, the Third Appellate District explained, “A qualifying ‘mental disability’ under FEHA includes ‘any mental or psychological disorder …, such as … emotional or mental illness’ that ‘limits a major life activity.’” However, in affirming the trial court’s decision, it reasoned that the plaintiff’s claimed “inability to work under a particular supervisor” does not fall under FEHA per Hobson.

The court acknowledged that the holding in Hobson has been distinguished and limited in later decisions. It explained that to the extent that Hobson’s holding relied on the older California rule which required a qualifying disability to “substantially limit” a major life activity, the decision has been disapproved, though that standard remains the law before the EEOC. The Court concluded that Hobson remains authoritative in its holding that even under the more lenient California standard, the plaintiff’s inability to work for a single supervisor while performing appropriate work related functions does not qualify as a recognized limit on the major life activity of working.

Higgins-Williams provides needed guidance to employers who must interpret the meaning of the California law identifying those employees with a disability as being entitled to the protections of the FEHA. However, the court acknowledges that its interpretation is under attack. The distinction on which this decision relies is extremely limited and employers must be cautious in applying it.

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June 1, 2015