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Two Disability Accommodation Cases to Consider

I recently had the opportunity to advise several clients—both employers and employees—regarding their rights and obligations when it comes to a disability accommodation. It is an area that is frequently misunderstood. It’s no wonder so many employers make correct disability accommodations for employees with disabilities. The following two published cases are good examples of how employers and employees can make mistakes.

Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, Inc. 246 Cal.App.4th 180 (2016)

Luis Castro-Ramirez worked for Dependable Highway Express, Inc. as a truck driver.  Luis’ son became ill requiring daily dialysis.  According to the evidence presented, Luis was the only one who could be available to do the dialysis. For several years, Dependable Highway worked with Luis and scheduled him so he could be at home during the evening when it was time to administer the dialysis.  When a new supervisor took over, however, he assigned Luis to a night shift. When Luis had to choose between his son’s dialysis and his job, he chose his son. The supervisor told plaintiff he “had quit by choosing not to take the assigned shift.”

Is An Employer Required To Provide A Disability Accommodation To A Non-Disabled Employee, But Who Needs The Accommodation To Care For A Disabled Child?

According to the California appellate court, although it is a “seldom-litigated cause of action,” an employee who needs to assist a disabled son can proceed with an “associational disability discrimination” claim. Prior to Castro-Ramirez, no published California case had determined whether employers have a duty under FEHA to provide disability accommodations to an applicant or employee who is associated with a disabled person. The Castro-Ramirez court held that “FEHA creates such a duty according to the plain language of the Act.”

The court was not persuaded by cases interpreting similar claims under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the court, “under the ADA, employers need not provide reasonable accommodations to employees who are relatives or associates of the disabled. FEHA’s language is simply not parallel to the ADA in this regard.”

If an employee requests disability accommodation, even if the accommodation is not related to the employee’s disability, employers need to consider whether the law requires the employer to provide the disability accommodation.

Mendoza v. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles 819 F.3d 1204 (9th Cir. 2016)

Alice Mendoza worked full-time for a small parish church as a bookkeeper. She took sick leave for ten months, during which the pastor of the church took over the bookkeeping duties himself and determined that the job could be done by a part-time bookkeeper. When Mendoza returned from sick leave, there no longer was a full-time bookkeeping position, so the pastor offered her a part-time job, which Mendoza declined.

Mendoza sued alleging she the church violated the ADA by discriminating against her and failing to provide a disability accommodation.

Does An Employer Have To Keep A Full-Time Position Open As A Disability Accommodation Even If The Position Does Not Require Full Time Work?

According to the Ninth Circuit, unless the employee can show the employer changed the position to part-time because of the employee’s disability, or that there was another full-time position available that the employee could perform, there is no claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The 9th Circuit first determined that “Mendoza failed to raise a triable dispute as to whether the Archbishop’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for not returning Mendoza to fulltime work was pretextual,” and therefore could not establish a discrimination or disparate treatment claim.  The court went on to say Mendoza “failed to establish that a full-time position was available,” and therefore could not establish a failure to accommodate claim.

Just because an employee is on a medical leave of absence as a disability accommodation does not mean the employer cannot make changes to the employment.  An employer cannot make changes because the employee went on a disability leave of absence, and the employer is still required to provide a reasonable accommodation for the employee, but the employer does not have to keep a position open that is no longer necessary.

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

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Disability Discrimination Plaintiff Not Required to Prove Ill Will

Sheriff’s Deputy Dennis Wallace brought a disability discrimination case against the County of Stanislaus (County) under FEHA (Government Code section 12940) after the County removed him from his job as bailiff and placed him on an unpaid leave of absence.  Wallace wanted to continue doing his job, but the County believed Wallace could not safely perform the job. At trial, Wallace was able to show he could safely perform the job with accommodations. The County argued that even if it was wrong, the mistake was reasonable and Wallace could not prove animus or ill will.

Court Incorrectly Held Disability Plaintiff Must Prove Animus or Ill Will

The trial court believed the employee had to prove “animus or ill will” in order to prevail.  The trial court modified the jury instruction (CACI No. 2540) to include a requirement that Wallace prove County regarded or treated him “as having a disability in order to discriminate.”

On appeal, the court concluded the jury instruction and special verdict form contained error.  The proper standard regarding employer intent or motivation was decided by the Supreme Court in Harris v. City of Santa Monica (2013) 56 Cal.4th 203 (Harris).

Animus or Ill Will Not Required.

Disability Plaintiff Protected from erroneous or mistaken believes About Employee’s Ability to Perform the Job.

Under Harris, Wallace could prove the requisite discriminatory intent by showing his actual or perceived disability was a “substantial motivating factor/reason” for County’s decision to place him on a leave of absence. California law does not require an employee with an actual or perceived disability to prove that the employer’s adverse employment action was motivated by animosity or ill will against the employee.  Instead, employees are protected from an employer’s erroneous or mistaken beliefs about the employee’s physical condition.  (§ 12926.1, subd. (d).)

In short, the Legislature decided that the financial consequences of an employer’s mistaken belief that an employee is unable to safely perform a job’s essential functions should be borne by the employer, not the employee. Even if the employer’s mistake was reasonable and made in good faith, the employee is not required to prove the employer’s decision was motivated by animus or ill will.

The court remand Wallace’s disability discrimination claim for a retrial limited to determining the amount of damages resulting from County’s decision to place Wallace on an unpaid leave of absence.  The court believed a limited retrial was appropriate because the jury found that (1) County regarded or treated Wallace as if he were disabled, (2) Wallace was able to perform the essential job functions of a deputy sheriff with or without reasonable accommodation, and (3) County failed to prove Wallace’s disability would increase the danger to himself or others while he performed those job functions.

The court held that as a matter of law, the reason the County placed Wallace on a leave of absence was its mistaken belief that he could not safely perform the essential job functions of a deputy sheriff.  Therefore, the substantial-motivating-reason element was proven.  The court also found, as a matter of law, that the County’s decision to place Wallace on leave was a substantial factor in causing Wallace to suffer economic losses.  Based on those findings, the court determined the retrial could be limited to the amount of Wallace’s damages.

The lesson for employers is to not presume an employee is unable to safely perform the essential functions of the job just because the employee has a disability.  Placing an employee on a leave of absence against the employee’s will when the employee can perform the essential functions of the job with a different accommodation could lead to significant liability.