August 21, 2015 - Is being completely unable to work with your supervisor going to be accepted as a “disability” as defined by employment law? One clinical assistant dared ask this question in California court in Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Med. Found. putting it to the test in court.
Michaelin Higgins-Wiggins worked in Sutter’s Shared Services Department. During the course of her employment, she went to her doctor because her job (her supervisor and the human resources department specifically) were causing her to experience stress. After discussing the issue with her doctor, she received a diagnosis regarding the situation: adjustment order with anxiety. She took the issue and her resulting diagnosis to her employer and was granted a leave of absence. The leave of absence lasted approximately 30 days.
After returning to work, Higgins-Williams received a poor performance review from her supervisor followed by a number of negative/contentious interactions with the same supervisor. Higgins-Williams responded by filing a disability accommodation request, citing her previously mentioned diagnosis and the situation on the job with her supervisor and the human resources department resulting in stress/anxiety. She was granted additional leaves of absence. After time off for leaves of absence totaling longer than a year, her employment with Sutter was eventually terminated.
Higgins-Williams felt she was discriminated against due to her disability and that she was wrongfully terminated. She filed a lawsuit including these allegations. However, the trial court and Court of Appeal both agreed that Higgins-Williams was not disabled as defined by employment law. They found that an inability to work under a specific supervisor who is causing anxiety and/or stress as a result of standard oversight of the employee’s job performance, did not constitute an actual mental disability according to the terms provided by FEHA.
If you have questions about what constitutes disability discrimination on the job, contact thesouthern California employment law experts at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.