Inability to Work under a Particular Supervisor Because of Stress Associated with the Supervisor’s Standard Oversight is Not a Disability under FEHA

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) protects employees from employment discrimination based on mental disability. “Mental disability” is broadly defined under FEHA, and includes mental disorders and conditions that limit major life activities, like working. This is broader than the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that mental impairments “substantially limit” major life activities. Still, not all mental impairments rise to the level of a “mental disability” under FEHA.

In Higgins-Williams, No. C073677, 2015 WL 3451590 (Cal. Ct. App. May 26, 2015), an employee was diagnosed by her physician as suffering from anxiety and stress due to her normal interactions with her supervisor and the human resources department. The employer was aware of the diagnosis and granted the employee leaves of absence, including leave under the FEHA as a disability accommodation. The employer eventually terminated the employee when she failed to provide information as to when she could return to work or that additional leave would effectuate her return, and the employee sued alleging various causes of action, including disability discrimination. The trial court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment on all causes of action and the court of appeals affirmed, largely because an inability to work under a particular supervisor because of anxiety and stress related to the supervisor’s standard oversight of job performance is not a mental disability recognized under the FEHA.

This case reaffirms that while FEHA’s definition of “mental disability” is broad, it is not limitless. Other impairments that are not considered mental disabilities include “sexual behavior disorders, compulsive gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, or psychoactive substance use disorders resulting from the current unlawful use of controlled substances or other drugs.” (Gov. Code section 12926(j)(5).) This case is also a good reminder for employers that a leave of absence may be a reasonable accommodation. However, an employer does not have to wait indefinitely for an employee’s return.


It is unlawful for an employer to willfully misclassify an individual as an independent contractor. (Lab. Code ยง 226.8.) This prohibition applies to the employer making the misclassification, and to any joint employer who is aware that the co-employer has willfully misclassified their joint employees. Noe v. Superior Court, No. B259570, 2015 WL 3463006, at 1 (Cal. Ct. App. June 1, 2015).

By: Branden M. Clary
Wilke Fleury Labor & Employment News