Employers often struggle to address conflicts between a supervisor and a subordinate. But what is an employer’s legal responsibility when an employee claims that working for a particular supervisor is so stressful that the employee is disabled and needs to be reassigned as a reasonable accommodation? Recently, in Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation, a California appellate court analyzed this very issue.

The Facts

According to the court’s opinion, Michaelin Higgins-Williams worked as a clinical assistant in the Shared Services Department at Sutter Medical Foundation. In June 2010, Higgins-Williams reported to her doctor that interactions with human resources and her manager at Sutter were causing her stress. Her doctor diagnosed her with an adjustment disorder with anxiety. After exhausting her right to leave under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Higgins-Williams returned to work and received a negative performance evaluation from her supervisor, Debbie Prince.

According to Higgins-Williams, a few weeks later, regional manager Norma Perry, Prince’s boss, began singling her out for negative treatment, treated her curtly, and gave her a disproportionate share of work. Higgins-Williams further claimed that the next day, Prince accused her of being irresponsible in caring for her identification badge, and Perry grabbed her arm and yelled at her.

Higgins-Williams suffered a panic attack, left work, and did not return. Instead, she asked for several accommodations, including a leave of absence and a transfer to a different department. Higgins-Williams’s doctor confirmed that the anxiety disorder was her only disability, and if she were transferred away from Perry and Prince, she could function normally. However, he did not provide information about her ability to return to work in her current position.

Although Sutter granted Higgins-Williams another leave of absence, it did not agree to transfer her. Instead, Sutter notified Higgins-Williams that she needed to provide additional information about her ability to return to the clinical assistant job, or it would end her employment. When Higgins-Williams did not provide the information, Sutter terminated her.

The Court’s Decision

Higgins-Williams filed a lawsuit against Sutter, claiming, among other things, that it discriminated against her based on her disability, failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation, failed to engage in the interactive process, and discriminated against her for taking FMLA/CFRA leave. However, the California Court of Appeal rejected Higgins-Williams’ suit. Relying on existing case law, it held that her inability to work for a particular supervisor and manager because of the anxiety and stress caused by their “standard oversight of [her] job performance” did not constitute a disability under the law. As a result, Higgins-Williams was not entitled to a reasonable accommodation, and her disability discrimination claims failed.

Moreover, the court determined that Sutter had not discriminated against Higgins-Williams for taking CFRA/FMLA leave. In fact, after she exhausted her CFRA/FMLA leave entitlement, they allowed her to take five additional months of leave. And Higgins-Williams’s claim that she was wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy for asserting her CFRA/FMLA rights was also unpersuasive, because the evidence showed Sutter that had a legitimate reason for terminating her employment that was not pretextual (i.e., failing to provide the requested information about her ability to return to her current job).

Practical Tips for Employers

Even though disability accommodation requests must always be evaluated based on the particular circumstances, this decision helps employers understand the limits of their responsibility to accommodate reassignment requests because working with a particular supervisor is “stressful.” According to the court, such stress does not constitute a disability, so an employer does not have a duty to accommodate an employee’s accommodation request on this basis alone.

However, in evaluating any reassignment request, an employer must still keep several important points in mind. First, if an employee has a disability other than the stress caused by the supervisor or job, he or she may be entitled to accommodation, and reassignment may be effective and reasonable—even if the employee also has a difficult time working with his or her supervisor.

Moreover, when faced with a claim that working with a supervisor is stressful, an employer should obtain more details before determining how to proceed. Because the employer has a duty to engage in the “interactive process,” independent of the duty to provide a reasonable accommodation, it must work with the employee to determine if the employee has a disability and if so, whether it can provide a reasonable accommodation. Of course, further inquiry will also help an employer identify whether the supervisor is treating employees fairly and respectfully. If not, even if the supervisor’s conduct is not illegal, the employer may be able to prevent future problems and increase retention by addressing the supervisory issues.

Finally, as part of the interactive process, the employer should communicate regularly and clearly with the employee requesting the accommodation. In Higgins-Williams, the court seemed persuaded by Sutter’s position in large part because it extended her leave beyond the time required by the FMLA/CFRA, and because it stayed in frequent contact with her and notified her of the consequences of not providing additional information about her ability to return to her current job.

In short, while there is no formula for guaranteed success in this challenging area, an employer need not reassign or transfer an employee who claims a particular supervisor or position causes stress or anxiety. And an employer can often meet its legal obligation by listening carefully, crafting an appropriate response based on the circumstances, and communicating clearly.

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