Legal Briefing: Bosses Can Be a Liability — But Not a Disability

By Mark Kobata

Aug. 3, 2015

Michaelin Higgins-Williams worked for the Sutter Medical Foundation in Sacramento, California. From 2007 to the end of her employment, Higgins-Williams worked under Norma Perry, her regional manager, and Debbie Prince, her immediate supervisor. In June 2010, Higgins-Williams reported to her doctor that she was feeling stress and anxiety because of interactions with her supervisors and human resources.

Higgins-Williams’ doctor subsequently placed her on disability leave because of “stress” as a result of the difficulties she said she was having with her supervisors. She returned from leave only to go out on leave again just over a month later. Her doctor later released Higgins-Williams to work so long as she did not have to work under the same supervisors. After she exhausted all available leave and after engaging in an extensive interactive process looking for an accommodation, Sutter Medical Foundation terminated her employment. Higgins-Williams sued, claiming disability discrimination. The trial court granted Sutter Medical Foundation’s motion for summary judgment, and Higgins-Williams appealed. The California Court of Appeal for the 3rd Appellate District upheld summary judgment against Higgins-Williams, finding that she did not have a legal disability. The court concluded that while being unable to perform a particular job might be a disability under California law, being unable to work with a particular supervisor is not. Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation, Cal. Ct. App. No. C073677(May 26, 2015).

Impact: Employees cannot use California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act to dictate who they will and won’t work with. Employers still need to be careful, however, because a condition that limits an employee’s ability to do a particular job could still qualify as a disability.

Mark T. Kobata and Marty Denis are partners in the law firm Barlow, Kobata and Denis, which has office in Beverly Hills, California, and Chicago. To comment, email

Mark Kobata and Marty Denis are partners at the law firm Barlow, Kobata and Denis, which has offices in Beverly Hills, California, and Chicago.

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