Articles Posted in Discrimination – Disability

In a blow to those employees who suffer from stress and anxiety caused by abusive employers, a California Court of Appeals has determined that “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 mental disability” under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

In Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation 14 C.D.O.S. 5245 (2015), the Plaintiff worked as a clinical assistant for Sutter Medical Foundation for nearly three years when her doctor diagnosed her as having “adjustment disorder with anxiety” and further reported that her disabling condition was “stress when dealing with her Human Resources and manager.” Plaintiff took a medical leave and as soon as she returned, her manager gave her a negative performance review (the first negative review she received at Sutter). On her second day back at work, Plaintiff’s manager grabbed her arm and yelled at her and Plaintiff suffered a panic attack as a result. Plaintiff’s doctor put her on another medical leave.

Plaintiff then requested, as a reasonable accommodation for her disability, to transfer to a different department so that she could work under a different supervisor and manager. Although Plaintiff and her doctor repeatedly reported to Sutter that she could return to work in a different department under a different manager, Sutter instead chose to extend her medical leave and eventually terminated her employment rather than accommodate her with a transfer.

Weaving v. City of Hillsboro, 763 F.3d 1106 (2014), involved an Oregon police officer who claimed he was terminated because of his disability, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). The jury found for Officer Weaving, however the Ninth Circuit took his verdict away, claiming that ADHD may have limited his life functions of working and/or interacting with others, but it did not “substantially” limit those life functions.

It is a pity for Officer Weaving that he didn’t work in the State of California, where a disability is defined by statute as “limiting” rather than “substantially limiting” a life function. California employees can certainly argue that ADHD is a disability because of this difference. California employees should always file a charge with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (the DFEH, the California state agency governing employment discrimination and/or have the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the federal agency) cross-file the claim with the DFEH.

December 9, 2014 Jody I. LeWitter

In a partial victory for California workers, the State’s highest court ruled, in Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co. 59 Cal.4th 407 (2014) that employers cannot get away with violating California employment laws just because they find evidence, after being sued, that their mistreated employees did not have proper authorization to work in the United States.

Mr. Salas had worked for Sierra Chemical Company in California for a number of years when he injured his back on the job. The company had regular seasonal layoffs during the winter months and typically hired back its workers when business picked up in warmer months. However, after Mr. Salas injured his back on the job and filed a worker’s compensation claim, Sierra refused to hire him back until he could prove that he no longer needed an accommodation for his back injury. Mr. Salas filed a lawsuit against Sierra for unlawful employment discrimination and retaliation under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, claiming that Sierra refused to accommodate his physical disability and refused to rehire him in retaliation for having filed a worker’s compensation claim.

Almost two years after refusing to rehire Mr. Salas, and just before the case was set to go to trial, Sierra found evidence that Mr. Salas had used someone else’s social security number when he applied for the job many years ago. The company argued that this information provided a complete justification for throwing his lawsuit out of court. Fortunately, the California Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that an employer cannot completely escape from liability just because it later finds evidence, after a lawsuit is filed, that the employee it discriminated against was undocumented. The Court explained that employers would otherwise have a powerful incentive to hire undocumented workers, or “look the other way” when hiring employees they suspect to be undocumented, because they would be able to violate any number of California’s employment laws (including minimum wage laws, child labor laws, and anti-discrimination laws) and get away with it if any of their undocumented employees ever sued to enforce the law.

There is an employee-with-a-disability’s worst nightmare. You suffer from a disability. You try your best to go to work each day despite your disability (which here is a mental disability). Because of the stigma associated with the disability, you keep your medical condition to yourself. When you must miss work due to your disability, you faithfully let your employer know. Because you want your employer to understand that there really is a good reason for your absence, you let your employer know the nature of your disability and that it caused you to miss work. Then, your employer stands up on a chair and screams to the world, including all your co-workers, “Ignat was bipolar!” Ignat v. Yum! Brands, Inc., 214 Cal.App.4th 808 (2013).

As a result of Ignat’s supervisor’s loose lips, Ms. Ignat’s co-workers shun her and ask whether she is going to “go postal”. Ms. Ignat sues for invasion of privacy. The employer defends based on a bunch of technicalities. First, it defended the case based on the fact that she filed her legal papers too late. The trial court bought this, but the Court of Appeals reversed. Then it defended claiming you can only state a claim for invasion of privacy if the invasion is done in writing, rather than orally. The lower Court bought this argument, and dismissed Ms. Ignat’s claim. Luckily for her, the Court of Appeals agrees that an invasion of privacy doesn’t require a written agreement, calling such a requirement “outmoded”.

I wish Ms. Ignat good luck back in the trial court. Yum! Brands (which, by the way, owns the likes of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell) should apologize to Ms. Ignat rather than fighting her claim on technical grounds.

The best that can be said about Smith v. Clark County School District (9th Cir 2013) 727 F.3d 950, as well as all the case law examining whether what an employee said on his or her disability application bars a claim for disability discrimination/failure to accommodate, is: BE CAREFUL! Anything you say can and will be used against you. However, as explained by the Ninth Circuit in Smith , if what you say can be interpreted in more than one way, this is a question for the jury.

Ms. Smith worked as a literacy specialist at a school district. She had a back injury that limited her mobility. When her principal informed her that she was being assigned to teach kindergarten for the next academic year, she told the principal that her back injury prevented her from doing so. Thereinafter, Ms. Smith aggravated her back injury, and was off work totally until the end of the academic year. She applied for disability benefits and family leave.

Ms. Smith filed a claim for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The employer-school district filed for summary judgment.

Ana Fuentes Sanchez took a pregnancy disability leave of absence while working for Swissport, Inc. When she exhausted her four months of leave mandated by the Pregnancy Disability Leave Law (PDLL) she was still unable to return to work because of the nature of her high risk pregnancy.

Swissport terminated Ms. Sanchez after the expiration of her four month leave of absence, contending that it had provided her with all that the law required under the PDLL.

But Ms. Sanchez asked what about the other provisions of the Fair Employment & Housing Act? Doesn’t Govt. Code § 12940(m) require that an employer provide a reasonable accommodation to a disabled employee? (Yes.) Wasn’t Ms. Sanchez – due to her high risk pregnancy – a disabled employee? (Yes.) And isn’t it true that a leave of absence is, under the law, a reasonable accommodation? (Yes, again.) And – last but not least – can’t a reasonable accommodation consist of a leave of absence greater than four months? (Yes! See Hanson v. Lucky Stores (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 215, 227 ; andWatkins v. Ameripride Services (9th Cir. 2004) 375 F.3d 821, 828-829).

I understand the desire of an employee (or employee’s attorney) to exhaust all avenues to contest the wrongful discriminatory and/or retaliatory termination of an employee, but White v. City of Pasadena __F.3d___ (9th Cir Jan 17, 2012) is a prime example of why such a shotgun approach can be shortsighted and dangerous.

Ms. White was a police officer with the City of Pasadena. White was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but continued to do her job. The City then fired her, claiming she was associating with a known drug dealer and lied about it. Officer White, through her union’s grievance process, arbitrated her termination and she was reinstated to her position as a police officer.

Instead of letting “good enough” alone, Officer White filed a lawsuit in state court (White I), claiming the City of Pasadena harassed and discriminated against her based upon her disability. The jury found for the City, the California Court of Appeals upheld the verdict, and the California Supreme Court refused to review the ruling.

Perhaps this case is an example of bad facts make bad law, or perhaps this panel was just kinda testy about the importance of attendance at work. Ms. Samper was a nurse who worked in the neo-natal intensive care unit of defendant Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. Due to an admitted disability, she needed some flexibility in attendance, meaning that she needed more sick days than was permitted under the hospital’s policy. Before reading this opinion, and given the law in the Ninth Circuit, including the venerable case of Humphrey v. Memorial Hospitals, 239 F.3d 1128 (2001) (strongly worded opinion requiring a hospital to provide a reasonable accommodation to a medical transcriptionist including flexibility in an attendance policy) , I had no doubt that flexibility in an attendance policy at a hospital would be just the type of reasonable accommodation that the Ninth Circuit would uphold. Boy was I in for a surprise.

Ms. Samper, like Ms. Humphrey, suffered from a disability that made accommodations in the attendance policy a requirement for her to work. Once at work, there was absolutely no evidence that her performance suffered in any way. This type of accommodation seemed just what the doctor ordered. Not so, says the Ninth Circuit, making some very bad law in the process.

According to the Ninth Circuit, regular attendance is an “essential function” of the job of a NICU nurse. Thus, since Ms. Samper’s disability impinges upon her attendance, the hospital need not accommodate her. The Ninth Circuit reached this opinion by relying upon the hospital’s job description and supervisor say so (isn’t that convincing!). The Ninth Circuit made fun of Ms. Samper’s argument that, since all employees are permitted sick days and vacation and the hospital is able to accommodate this, it ought to be able to accommodate further absences due to Ms. Samper’s disability.

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.

Ms. Wills worked for Orange County and was terminated for violating the County’s policy against threatening conduct and/or violence in the workplace. Willis submitted evidence that her behavior in violation of the policy was due to a disability – her bipolar disorder. Wills also submitted evidence that the County was aware that she suffered from bipolar disorder, and that the disorder caused her threatening conduct. Wills v Superior Court, __Cal.App.4th ___ (April 13, 2010).

Before this case, no California court, nor any court interpreting California’s Fair Employment & Housing Act, had ever ruled on the legality or illegality of taking action against an employee for conduct – considered by the employer to be misconduct – which was caused by a disability. The employer urged the court to adopt its position that, if the employer asserted that the firing was due to the conduct rather than the disability, its action was protected.

The Court of Appeals ruled for the employer, and declared that the employer’s action in firing Ms. Wills for threating conduct did not constitute disability discrimination. The Court did, however, refrain from the wholesale adoption of the employer’s position, refusing to extend its holding beyond the facts of the case. In other words, the Court stated that the termination was justified in the limited circumstances presented, where the conduct included threats of violence or violence.