A Reasonable Accommodation May be Required Regardless of Whether an Employee is Found To Be 100% Disabled under the Workers Compensation System

Mr. Cuiellette was a police officer employed by the City of Los Angeles. Due to an on-the-job injury, he was no longer able to perform the duties of a field officer. He filed a workers compensation claim and was rated 100% disabled. The City reassigned him to a light duty desk job, which he could perform. When the City realized that Mr. Cuiellette was rated as 100% disabled, it promptly ended his light duty assignment and sent him packing.

Mr. Cuiellette sued, claiming disability discrimination. He claimed that, regardless of the workers compensation disability rating for his officer job, he could do the essential elements of his light duty desk job. The jury agreed, resulting in a $1.5 million judgment, and an appeal. Cuiellette v City of Los Angeles, 194 Cal. App. 4th 757 (April 22, 2011).

The California Court of Appeals upheld the verdict. It declared that a “rating received in the worker’s compensation proceeding was not, as a matter of law, a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for an employer’s adverse employment action.” Indeed, an employer must engage in the interactive process, and carefully analyze whether an employee can perform the essential functions of his or her job, or other vacant jobs, with or without a reasonable accommodation, regardless of any disability rating. Here, in particular, the Court noted that the City of Los Angeles had a policy and practice of permitting injured employees to perform desk jobs on a long term basis. Thus, it was inappropriate to require that Mr. Cuiellette prove that he could perform the essential elements of his field job, rather than his desk job.

There are quite a number of employers out there that refuse to engage in the interactive process when an employee is found to be mostly disabled by the workers compensation system. The court Cuiellette established that this is wrong. In addition, Cuiellette makes clear that, in at least some instances, a temporary job may be as good as a permanent one. It is important for employees to be aware of their independent rights under the Fair Employment & Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act when they become disabled, and to hold the employer accountable for fully and faithfully engaging in the interactive process.

Jody LeWitter
September 19, 2011