Stress Caused By A Difficult Supervisor Is Not A Disability

Kollman & Saucier
Kollman & Saucier

Employers often encounter claims that an employee is suffering work-related stress and needs an accommodation for a disability.  The employee often wants reassignment to a different supervisor, usually because of the supervisor’s management style, although the employee may characterize the problem as harassment, bullying, or in other pejorative terms.  Assuming it turns out that the employee is complaining about anxiety or stress caused by the supervisor’s standard oversight and management of the employee’s performance, reassignment typically is not a required accommodation because the employee does not have a qualifying disability.  An inability to get along with one’s supervisor is not a disability, because the ability to work is not substantially limited by an inability to work under the supervision of one particular person.

In Morgan v. AT&T Communications of California, No. H044994, (Ct. App., 9/25/20), the employee claimed he was denied a reasonable accommodation for stress he suffered as a result of working under his assigned supervisors.  Because of the stress, the employee took leaves of absence totaling more than twelve months between October 2007 and March 2009.  The employee’s physicians indicated he had no physical work restrictions but he should work from an alternative worksite or for a different supervisor, and he should not return to his same job.  The employee’s physicians considered the employee’s condition (i.e., being unable to work under his assigned supervisor) permanent.  The employee confirmed that he could perform the essential functions of his job if he had a different supervisor, but that working for his current supervisor, who he alleged nitpicked his work, had caused stress, chest pains, loss of sleep, and other symptoms.

Eventually, the employee was terminated for failing to report to work as instructed, and he subsequently filed a lawsuit.  The employer did not challenge the physicians’ advice or whether the employee had actually experienced the symptoms of stress.  Instead, the employer argued that the employee’s disabling condition was just the manifestation of symptoms arising from his inability to work under his assigned supervisor and is therefore not a qualified disability under the law.  The court agreed and dismissed the employee’s claim, finding that the employee’s alleged disability is “his personal reaction to his supervisor’s oversight and management style, which rendered him unable to work under the supervision of a particular person.”  This did not qualify as legally protected disability.    

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