In a recent case out of California, a state appellate court found that an employee’s inability to work for a particular supervisor due to boss-related stress and anxiety did not constitute a disability under state law. The employee worked for her employer for approximately three years before being diagnosed by her doctor with adjustment disorder with anxiety. Based on the diagnosis, she was granted a disability leave of absence under both state and federal leave acts, with her disability listed as “stress when dealing with her Human Resources and her manager.” The employee exhausted her leave and returned to work for a brief period of time. Employee alleged that upon her return, she received a negative performance evaluation (her only one while with the employer), and was accused by her supervisor of being irresponsible in regards to her identification badge. She further claimed that her regional manager was mean to her, singled her out for negative treatment, gave her a disproportionate amount of work, and grabbed her arm and yelled at her, causing her to suffer a panic attack.
The employee left work again and requested another leave of absence, which was granted and extended several times. Additionally, she requested accommodation in the form of a transfer to a different department with a different schedule. Her doctor indicated that if the transfer occurred, she would be able to work without limitation. The physician later requested that the employee be permitted to transition, on light duty, back to her original department in connection with the employer’s transitional program. The employer requested additional information regarding her return and indicated that without such information, her employment would be terminated. Ultimately, the employee did not return to work. Her employment was terminated and she filed suit alleging, among other things, disability discrimination and wrongful termination.
Under the relevant state law, discrimination against an employee on the basis of mental disability is unlawful. California law includes “any mental or psychological disorder… such as… emotional or mental illness” that “limits a major life activity” as a qualifying mental disability. In order to establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination, a plaintiff must show that she has a disability, is otherwise qualified to perform the job with or without reasonable accommodation, and was subject to an adverse employment action because of her disability. The court, in affirming summary judgment for the employer, found that the employee was unable to establish a prima facie case of discrimination, as she “did not have a legally recognized mental disability,” finding that the inability to work for a certain manager did not rise to a disability under state law. Additionally, the Court found that the employee could not claim that her inability to work for a certain supervisor was akin to the exclusion from a single type of job with a single employer. The court found that her additional causes of action, including failure to engage in the interactive process and provide reasonable accommodations, also failed because the employee “did not have a legally recognized mental disability.” Further, the employee’s claims related to her use of state leave failed, as there was no proof that she could have actually returned to work and further, that the employer had a legitimate reason for terminating her and she was unable to establish pretext for same.
Although the employee’s condition was ultimately found to not be a disability under California law, it’s important to note what can happen when an employer or an employee fails to engage in the interactive process. The process is just as important as the outcome, and both parties must participate to identify appropriate accommodations.