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Expensive Disability Accommodation Lesson

Caltrans in Nevada County learned the hard way that you cannot ignore an employee disability accommodation requests. More importantly, you can’t retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation. An article in the Sacramento Bee provides many of the details. I’ve written several articles regarding the importance of proper accommodation policies and procedures in the workplace.

Employee Awarded $3million in Disability Accommodation Lawsuit

John Barrie claimed his supervisors harassed him and ignored his requests for accommodations related to his allergies. Mr. Barrie has severe reactions to certain smells, such as chemical cleaners and perfumes. Although Nevada County Caltrans accommodated Mr. Barrie for years, Barrie alleged supervisors started harassing him and denying the disability accommodations in 2010. Barrie allegedly sought help internally through various channels, but the harassment continued. The jury believed Mr. Barrie, and awarded him $3million for the retaliation and harassment related to his allergies.

Allergies Can Constitute a Disability

State and federal laws broadly define “disability.” In short, a disability is any medical condition–psychological or physiological–that impairs one or more major life functions. Severe allergies can impair major life functions such as breathing. Some people experience severe skin rashes, headaches, nausea and vertigo from allergic reactions.

Disability discrimination laws require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities. Failing to provide reasonable accommodations, and in some instances failing to engage in the interactive process of determining what disability accommodations are appropriate, is a violation of the law.

From the pleadings, it appears Caltrans HR department tried to accommodate Mr. Barrie. A regional administrator affirmed his allergies in 2011, and wrote an order compelling workplace accommodations. Barrie alleged his supervisors ignored the order, and retaliated against Barrie by giving him job duties outside his normal scope and moving him to less convenient job sites.

Every Disability Accommodation Request is Serious

Supervisors oftentimes fail to recognize they must treat every disability accommodation request seriously. While HR may know the requirements, ensuring supervisors comply with the law can be difficult. In Barrie’s case, an HR note revealed that Barrie’s supervisors wanted to discipline Barrie for going to HR because he went outside the “chain of command.” I suspect this factored heavily in the juries $3million award. Employers cannot retaliate against employees for requesting accommodations or raising complaints in the workplace.

If you require a workplace accommodation, or if your employee requests an accommodation, talk with an attorney familiar with disability accommodation and discrimination issues.

Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman of Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C.

Feel free to suggest topics for the blog. We are happy to consider topics pertaining to general points of Labor and Employment Law. We cannot answer questions about specific situations or provide legal advice over the Internet. If you desire legal advice, you should contact an attorney.

Using this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. Using the Internet or this blog to communicate with the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Do not post confidential or time-sensitive information in this blog. The Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. cannot guarantee the confidentiality of anything posted to this blog.

The Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. represents employees and businesses throughout Silicon Valley and the greater San Francisco Bay Area including Pleasanton, Oakland, San Ramon, Hayward, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Los Altos, San Jose, the South Bay Area, Campbell, Los Gatos, Cupertino, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, Saratoga, and Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Benito, Mendocino, and Calaveras counties.

Inability to Work Under Particular Supervisor Not a Disability

A California court recently reaffirmed that the inability to work under a particular supervisor because of anxiety and stress related to the supervisor’s standard oversight of job performance—is not a disability recognized under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA; Gov. Code, § 12900 et seq.).

Higgins-Williams worked as a clinical assistant for Sutter Medical Foundation’s Shared Services doing patient intake. In 2010, Higgins told her doctor she was stressed because of interactions at work with human resources and her manager.  Her doctors diagnosed her as having adjustment disorder with anxiety, and Higgins went on a stress-related leave of absence under the California Family Rights Act and the Family Medical Leave Act. The doctor reported Higgins’ disabling condition as “…stress[] when dealing with her Human Resources and her manager.”

When Higgins returned to work, she received her first negative performance evaluation since she began working at Sutter.  Higgins believed she was being singled out, and that her supervisor “was curt and abrupt with plaintiff, while being open and friendly with plaintiff’s coworkers, and gave plaintiff a disproportionate share of work.”  Plaintiff requested a transfer to a different department for “…forever”), a schedule of 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and another leave of absence.  Plaintiff made the requests in order to accommodate her alleged disability: adjustment disorder with anxiety.

Sutter granted the leave of absence, but refused to transfer her to a different department with a different manager.  Higgins’ doctor continued to extend the leave of absence because Sutter never agreed to transfer Higgins to a different department with a different manager.  The doctor opined that although Higgins could return to work as a clinical assistant, the doctors was concerned about Higgins’ ability to do so in the same department as her regional manager.  Sutter eventually terminated Higgins because there was no indication Higgins would ever be able to return to her job.

Inability to Work Under Particular Supervisor Not a Disability

Higgins sued Sutter for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate.  The appellate court held:

An employee’s inability to work under a particular supervisor because of anxiety and stress related to the supervisor’s standard oversight of the employee’s job performance does not constitute a disability under FEHA, citing Hobson v. Raychem Corp. (1999) 73 Cal.App.4th 614, 628 [“the inability to perform one particular job, or to work under a particular supervisor, does not constitute a qualified disability” under FEHA].

Because the court determined the plaintiff did not have a “disability,” the remaining disability-related causes of action were dismissed.

California and federal law define “disability” very broadly, but that doesn’t mean every stress or anxiety requires an accommodation.  When the requested accommodation is a different supervisor, courts are reluctant to hold an employer liable for disability discrimination.  Employers must take every request for a disability accommodation seriously.  When properly conducted, the employer and employee should engage in an interactive process to determine what reasonable accommodations will enable the person to perform the essential functions of the job.

The Nuddleman Law Firm represents employers and employees regarding disability accommodations and discrimination.

Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman of Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C.

Feel free to suggest topics for the blog. We are happy to consider topics pertaining to general points of Labor and Employment Law, but we cannot answer questions about specific situations or provide legal advice. If you desire legal advice, you should contact an attorney.

Your use of this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. The use of the Internet or this blog for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be posted in this blog and Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. cannot guarantee the confidentiality of anything posted to this blog.

The Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. represents employees and businesses throughout Silicon Valley and the greater San Francisco Bay Area including Pleasanton, Oakland, San Ramon, Hayward, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Los Altos, San Jose, the South Bay Area, Campbell, Los Gatos, Cupertino, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, Saratoga, and Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Benito, Mendocino, and Calaveras counties.