The bad boss is a cliché. There have been many movies about evil supervisors- for example, “Horrible Bosses” and (because one wasn’t enough) “Horrible Bosses 2.” There are TV shows featuring frustrating or bad bosses – like Michael Scott in “The Office,” or Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons.” There’s even a website where you can rate your boss and check out the ratings of others, so you can avoid them – eBossWatch.com. (I didn’t check to see if I’m in there…)
Sadly, many of us have had personal experience with a boss who drives us crazy. So to speak. But what about the boss who literally drives an employee crazy? Is the employee now protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act? And what accommodation should be provided? A federal district court recently addressed these questions in the case of Alsup v. U.S. Bancorp.
According to the plaintiff, who had a history of mental health problems, her new boss treated her in “a negative and devaluing manner,” which caused her disability to resurface. She was subsequently diagnosed with Bipolar II depression. After the plaintiff received a write-up from her boss, she had to schedule an urgent appointment with her psychiatrist, who put her on a medical leave and recommended an accommodation of “a switch in supervisors.” A company HR representative emailed and spoke with the plaintiff on multiple occasions to request additional information about her boss’ conduct and what other accommodations might be possible to enable her to continue working for her boss. The plaintiff insisted the transfer to another supervisor was the only solution. The company refused and the plaintiff never returned to work. She then sued the company under California’s anti-discrimination law for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate her disability.
Under the ADA (which the courts look to in interpreting the disability provisions of California’s law), in order to bring a claim of disability discrimination, the plaintiff must show (among other things) that she can perform the essential functions of her job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. In this case, the court found that,
“Because the plaintiff’s claimed disability stems from her inability to get along with her supervisor, and the only effect it had on her job was to render her unable to work with that supervisor, she has not and cannot allege she could perform the duties of her job with or without reasonable accommodations.”
The court also cited a number of other cases, all standing for the proposition that “an inability to get along with one’s supervisor does not give rise to a disability” protected by the ADA. The court concluded that the plaintiff failed to state a claim for disability discrimination.
As for the plaintiff’s failure to accommodate claim (assuming she had a disability covered by the ADA), the court, again citing numerous other cases, found that a transfer to another supervisor is an unreasonable accommodation as a matter of law. The court also pointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, in which the EEOC expressly states: “[a]n employer does not have to provide an employee with a new supervisor as a reasonable accommodation.”
Although the court ended there by throwing out the plaintiff’s claims, I want to point out that the EEOC’s Guidance does also say that, “although an employer is not required to change supervisors, the ADA may require that supervisory methods be altered as a form of reasonable accommodation.Also, an employee with a disability is protected from disability-based discrimination by a supervisor, including disability-based harassment.” So employers should not simply dismiss an employee’s request to transfer to another supervisor and consider the matter finished, particularly if the employee is claiming that the supervisor’s conduct is causing mental and physical health problems. In any case, the wise employer will still look into the supervisor’s conduct to see if any adjustments should be made to the way the supervisor interacts with the employee (and possibly others). After all, while a bad manager may not necessarily be illegal, he or she can still cause you problems from an efficiency or morale standpoint.