Most people have had to work for a "jerk" of a boss at one time or another in their careers. The question recently addressed by the California courts is whether being a jerk boss can create legal liability.
In the recent case Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation, the Court of Appeal held that being unable to work under a jerk is not "a disability." The plaintiff was diagnosed with "adjustment disorder with anxiety" after she reported to her physician that she was stressed due to interactions with human resources and her manager. Her employer granted plaintiff a stress-related leave of absence under the California Family Rights Act ("CFRA") and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). Plaintiff eventually exhausted her available leave and returned to work. However, she alleged that her manager was "curt and abrupt" with her while being friendly with other employees after her return. Plaintiff submitted a disability accommodation request to be transferred to a different department and for further leave of absence pursuant to her doctor's recommendation. The employer granted the request for a leave of absence. After several additional months on leave, Plaintiff's doctor indicated Plaintiff could return to work but he had concerns about her ability to work under her current manager. After Plaintiff had been on leave for five (5) months (after the exhaustion of CFRA and FMLA leave) the employer terminated Plaintiff. Plaintiff then filed suit for failure to provide reasonable accommodations and disability discrimination. The trial court dismissed the action on a motion for summary judgment on the basis that Plaintiff did not have a qualifying disability. The Court of Appeals agreed.
Under the Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"), if an employer becomes aware that an employee has a physical or mental disability, the employer must engage in what is referred to "a timely, good faith interactive process" to determine "effective reasonable accommodations." California law broadly defines a disability as a condition that limits a major life activity; this is different from the requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under California's broad definition, suffering from anxiety at work can be a disability depending on how it affects the employee. Under FEHA, it is also unlawful to discriminate against such disabled individuals.
In Higgins-Williams, the court did not hold that stress and related anxiety were not qualifying disabilities under FEHA but instead looked to the cause of the stress. The Court stated "an employee's inability to work with 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." The plaintiff in Higgins-Williams was apparently able to work, just not under her current manager. The inability to work under a particular supervisor did not rise to the level of "limiting a major life activity." As the plaintiff was found not to be disabled as a matter of law she could not succeed on her claims relating to disability.
The take away from this case is not that managers can be jerks or that anxiety is not a disability. There are many cases in the employment realm that show if managers are treating their subordinates poorly there are other causes of action that may be brought against their employers. Moreover, if an employee has general anxiety that prevents them from working altogether such a limitation would likely be found to limit a major life activity. As with so many disability issues, employers should tread lightly and consult with competent legal counsel before denying an employee's request for reasonable accommodation.