Hanson Bridgett Brings Home Appellate Victory for California Employers, Defeating ‘Boss-ectomy’ Claims

Adam Hofmann 
Adam Hofmann
May 28, 2015

California employers have been facing increasing incidents of so-called “boss-ectomy” claims, in which an employee claims to be disabled as a result of anxiety, depression, or other mental condition caused by the stress of working for a particular supervisor. As a result of her condition, the employee asserts a right to extended leave and a change of supervisor as an accommodation for her disability. Tuesday’s decision in Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation should put an end to that.

Applying the well-established standard for demonstrating a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, federal courts have universally concluded that an employee’s inability to work with a particular supervisor is not a “substantial limitation” on a major life activity and, therefore, is not a disability protected by the ADA. (See, e.g., Kennedy v. Dresser Rand Co. (2nd Cir. 1999) 193 F.3d 120; Gaul v. Lucent Technologies, Inc. (3rd Cir. 1998) 134 F.3d 576; Weiler v. Household Fin. Corp. (7th Cir. 1996) 101 F.3d 519.) California plaintiffs, however, have asserted that an employee’s inability to work with an assigned supervisor satisfies the lesser standard for demonstrating a disability under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, which recognizes conditions that merely limit—as opposed to substantially limit—a major life activity.

One California court rejected this theory of disability under FEHA. (Hobson v. Raychem Corp. (1999) 73 Cal.App.4th 614.) But Hobson, like all California cases at that time, evaluated disability claims using the federal “substantially limits” standard. As a result, Hobson was overruled, along with a long list of other FEHA cases, when the California Supreme Court established that a FEHA plaintiff need only prove a limitation to a major life activity in order be protected by California disability law. (Colmenares v. Braemar Country Club, Inc. (2003) 29 Cal.4th 1019.) But Colmenares did not have occasion to consider the validity of boss-ectomy claims, nor had any other California appellate court since. This left room for plaintiffs to argue that FEHA recognizes boss-ectomies and protects employees whose only limitation is their inability to work with an assigned supervisor. And California trial courts often allowed these claims to proceed to trial on the weight of Colmenares.

That is, until the Third District Court of Appeal issued its published opinion in Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation (May 26, 2015, C073677) __ Cal.App.4th __. In Higgins-Williams, Hanson Bridgett defended Sutter Medical Foundation from a boss-ectomy claim raised by a clinical nurse who alleged that she suffered from anxiety and adjustment disorder as a result of stress caused by working with her assigned supervisor. Sutter engaged in an extended interactive process with Ms. Higgins-Williams and ultimately concluded that she was able to perform all the necessary functions of her assigned job, except that she felt she could not work with the head of her department. When Sutter refused to assign Ms. Higgins-Williams to a new supervisor, she sued, alleging violations of FEHA. Using the record of Sutter’s interactive process and confirming deposition testimony, Hanson Bridgett’s Jahmal Davis secured summary judgment, convincing the trial court that Ms. Higgins-Williams was not disabled within the meaning of FEHA.

On appeal, we resisted Ms. Higgins-Williams’ efforts to obfuscate the nature of her condition and kept the Court of Appeal focused on the simple legal question: Can an employee’s inability to work with a supervisor support a claim of disability under FEHA? In a unanimous decision, the Third District found that it cannot, adopting Sutter’s lead argument—that Hobson’s rejection of boss-ectomy claims survived Colmenares. In a straightforward, published opinion that should prove to be useful to employers throughout the state, the court found, “An employee’s inability to work under 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.”

Click here to read the Law360 article about Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation (subscription required).