Stress [stres] (noun): a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.

Almost all types of work is stressful at least some of the time. Some jobs are inherently stressful.  So, how does an employer navigate an employee’s request for accommodation that is based upon a medical condition, like post-traumatic stress disorder, that often manifests in stressful work situations?   A recent ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit shows there are limits to an employer’s obligation to accommodate conditions like PTSD that are triggered by particular work circumstances.

The case is Tinsley v. Caterpillar Financial Services (6th Cir. 3/20/2019).    The source of Tinsley’s work stress was her supervisor.  She claimed her supervisor’s management style and decisions were so distasteful that it triggered her PTSD.   Tinsley asked her employer to accommodate her PTSD condition by assigning her to a new supervisor or permitting her to take medical leave.   The company allowed 18 weeks of intermittent leave, but denied the request for a new supervisor.   Tinsley ultimately resigned, and then sued, claiming the employer’s refusal to allow her to work under a different supervisor was an unlawful failure to accommodate under the ADA.

Tinsley worked for Caterpillar Financial for almost 20 years, starting as a paralegal but eventually moving to the business side of the company. In 2013, she was promoted to the position of Business Analyst III.  She worked on a team of employees and reported to a team leader.   It was not the team leader, but the team leader’s supervisor, Paul Kaikaris, that was apparently the cause of Tinley’s stress.

The problems started when Tinsley asked to be removed from her team because the combination of her family and work responsibilities caused more stress than she could handle.   Kaikaris responded by offering to work with Tinley to reduce her workload by reassigning some projects.  However, about two months later, Kaikaris expressed concerning about Tinsley’s work performance.   In her performance review Tinley received a “did not meet expectations” rating, which resulted in a performance improvement plan.  Tinsley refused to sign the PIP because she disagreed with it and believed it was not accurate.   She claimed Kaikaris provided a poor rating because she had complained to him that she did not approve of her co-workers bouncing stress balls off the ground.

Tinsley then began a practice of submitting doctor’s notes and successive requests for medical leave based upon “mental and emotional duress brought on by an over-excessive workload, unrealistic deadlines, a hostile work environment, and a manager’s reckless indifference to my mental and emotional well-being.”     After another five weeks of medical leave, Tinsley’s doctor allowed her to return to work with no restrictions.   But, the doctor qualified the “no restrictions” with a strong recommendation that she work in a different environment and under a different manager.  Otherwise, the doctor warned, Tinsley would be at “significantly increased risk for another exacerbation [of PTSD].”

Tinsley continued to request additional medical leave and a new supervisor. Eventually, the employer had enough and told Tinsley it could no longer accommodate her requests for leave, and did not believe her request for a transfer to a different supervisor was necessary or a reasonable accommodation. She resigned and filed a charge of discrimination, which ended up in a lawsuit.

The key question the Court of Appeals addressed was whether Tinsley’s PTSD that was triggered by work stress qualified as a “disability” under the law.   To qualify as a disability, the condition must substantially limit a major life activity.   In Tinsley’s case, she claimed her PTSD impacted only the major life activity of working.  Even with the 2009 ADA Amendments that made it easier to prove a condition is a disability, the court ruled Tinsley could not prove her PTSD substantially limited her in the major life activity of working.  The evidence showed that Tinsley did not have a limitation on performing a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs.  Rather, she could not work in her particular job, under her particular supervisor, because the supervisor’s management style triggered the PTSD.    Tinsley admitted she had no problem with her work generally, just under the particular manager.

Tinsley provides some important lessons to employers responding to accommodation requests from employees suffering from a stress related condition:

First, you should presume at the outset, as Caterpillar did in this case, that the employee’s condition qualifies as a disability, and work with the employee to find a reasonable accommodation.   Even if it is unclear whether accommodation is legally required, making the effort is the right thing to do.  Plus, if the situation ends up in a legal claim, such efforts will always make the claim more defensible.

Second, it is important to remember the Tinsley court ruled on the basis that the employee’s PTSD was not a disability.   The court did not address whether assigning the employee to a different supervisor would have been a reasonable accommodation.   So, employers should be careful about relying on this case to conclude that such a reassignment would never be reasonable.  It may not be, and with the facts of the Tinsley case, probably would have not have been.  But, it is a question that should be carefully considered based upon the employer’s circumstances, the job in question, and the medical evidence.

On the other hand, it may very well be unreasonable to move the employee to a different department or assign a different supervisor if the cause of the employee’s stress is a specific person or a situation associated with a particular job.    But, even when you are right to refuse the requested accommodation, seldom does it go well with the employee thereafter.    These employees present significant litigation risks.  If the refusal to accommodate means the employee resigns or is terminated, it is never a bad idea to offer severance in exchange for a release.