Hating Your Supervisor is Not a Disability

  • Apr 16, 2019
  • ADA
  • Dennis J. Merley

Must an employer grant a request for a new supervisor to accommodate a stress-related disability? A recent decision from the Federal Sixth Circuit Court Appeals emphatically answered “No” in most cases.

Cindy Tinsley, a long-time employee of Caterpillar Financial Services, worked her way up to Business System Analyst III reporting to Team Leader Amy Clendenon and manager Paul Kaikaris. In 2015 she received a negative performance evaluation and a Performance Improvement Plan from Kaikaris and Clendenon. Tinsley claimed that this was in retaliation for her having objected to Kaikaris allowing her co-workers to bounce stress balls off the ground in the work area.  She contended that the noise was a trigger for her post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”).

I Can Work, I Just Can’t Work For Him

Thereafter, Tinsley wrote the Human Resources Department complaining about the stress of her position, her midyear review, and the hostile work environment that Kaikaris created (with specific reference to the ball-bouncing).  She said that she could continue performing her job responsibilities but only if she was transferred to a different manager.  Otherwise she would need a medical leave of absence.  While the company granted her a medical leave (eighteen weeks in total) they consistently denied her request for a new manager, which ultimately led to Tinsley’s decision to resign.

Tinsley filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that the company discriminated against her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by failing to accommodate her request for a new manager.  She further alleged that the failure to grant this request amounted to a constructive termination.   After the lower court dismissed the case, Tinsley appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

The Appeals Court explained that to be disabled under the ADA, an individual must have a medical condition that substantially impairs one or more major life activities.  Tinsley’s only claimed impairment was in regard to her ability to work.  In such cases, the ADA requires a showing that the employee is restricted from performing a broad range or class of jobs, not just one job in particular.

The Court of Appeals concluded that Tinsley had not demonstrated that she was substantially impaired in her ability to perform a broad range of jobs and therefore, she was not disabled under the law.  To the contrary, all of her problems seemed to stem from Kaikaris’ management style and not the elements of the actual job itself. The Appeals Court noted:

– Tinsley explicitly told Human Resources that she could remain in her job if she had a different manager;

– Tinsley’s primary complaint about the job was that Kaikaris allowed her co-workers to bounce the stress balls, which impacted her PTSD;

– Tinsley’s doctor said she could return to work “at full capacity” but suggested that she be allowed to switch managers.

Is “Stressful Work” a Broad Range of Jobs?

Tinsley argued that her PTSD did substantially limit her from performing a broad range of jobs, namely those that produce high levels of stress. The Appeals Court was not persuaded, responding that a “class of jobs” refers to the nature of the work itself (e.g. truck driving) or to the job-related requirements (e.g. lifting, standing, etc.), and not to the conditions or byproducts of the work.

Moreover, the Court hearkened back to Tinsley’s insistence that she could perform the job but for the fact that Kaikaris was overseeing it.  As such, she obviously could handle the stress of her job and probably other jobs as well; she just could not do so where her stress level was dictated by the fact that Kaikaris was her manager.

Accordingly, Tinsley’s limitations related only to a unique aspect of one job, namely the identity of her manager. This does not demonstrate the inability to work in a broad range or class of jobs.  Therefore, Tinsley was not disabled under the ADA and could not pursue her claim.

Bottom Line

This case provides a good framework for analyzing disability-related demands for transfers to new supervisors.  While it is conceivable that a certain managerial style might be common enough to contribute to a finding of impairment in a broad range of jobs, it seems pretty clear that the inability to work for a one specific individual is not likely to be considered sufficient to articulate a covered disability under the ADA.