horrible boss

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In the movie Horrible Bosses, three friends conspire to murder their bosses when they realize they are standing in the way of their happiness. While most employees would not take it to that extreme (hopefully!), conflicts between employees and their superiors occur. Recently, in Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation, an employee went so far as to sue her employer, claiming that her inability to work for her boss was a “disability.”

A clinical assistant at a medical center in California alleged she began seeing her doctor because of stress due to interactions with human resources and her boss. Her doctor diagnosed her with “adjustment disorder with anxiety.” The employee requested leave from work. Her employer granted her a “stress-related” leave of absence. After the assistant returned to work, she claimed her boss was “curt and abrupt” with her (though friendly with others) and “grabbed her arm and yelled at her.” As a result, she suffered a panic attack and left work.

The employee then requested a transfer to a different department for “forever” and for additional leave as an accommodation for her “disability.” Leave was granted. After several months, the employer requested documentation regarding whether the employee was medically cleared to return. When the information was not provided, the employee was terminated. She sued for – among other things – disability discrimination.

The trial court dismissed the case finding that the employee did not have a “qualifying disability.” The stressed employee (who was not stressed enough to put the ordeal behind her) appealed.

The California Court of Appeal held that the inability to work for a specific boss is not a “disability.” The court noted that under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (for those in Florida, a law similar to the Florida Civil Rights Act) stress and related anxiety is not in and of itself a qualifying disability. “An employee’s inability to work with a particular supervisor because of anxiety and stress related to the supervisor’s oversight…does not constitute a disability.” Stated otherwise, the court ruled that because the employee was able to work- just not for that supervisor – she did not have a disability.

This is not to say that anxiety preventing an employee from working cannot be a disability. In this case, the court merely held that anxiety preventing an employee from working for a specific boss is not protected.

The movie Horrible Bosses was successful enough to prompt a sequel. However, the real life boss/employee feud ended with a win for the employer.