Articles Posted in Discrimination – 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.

In a somewhat tortured opinion, the Ninth Circuit approved a one strike rule for drug testing of applicants to become longshore workers. In Lopez v. Pacific Maritime Association (9th Cir. Mar. 2, 2011) 636 F.3d 1197, Mr. Lopez applied to be a longshoreman in 1997, but was rejected because he failed the PMA’s mandatory drug test. By 2002, Mr. Lopez was clean and sober. In 2004 he again applied to be a longshoreman but was rejected due to the PMA’s one strike rule. Mr. Lopez sued under the California Fair Employment & Housing Act (FEHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), claiming he was a rehabilitated drug addict and that the one strike rule’s lifetime ban was a per se violation of these Acts. He asserted that the one strike rule invariably excluded protected individuals based on their past behavior and constituted disability discrimination.

Mr. Lopez was a protected individual – clean and sober – but with a history of drug addiction. Indeed, under the one strike rule, nothing he could do would ever make him eligible for the job he wanted to hold. Ergo, it seems like FEHA and the ADA should provide him with some protection. However, the Ninth Circuit reached and stretched to find otherwise, relying on the fact that the PMA’s rules and actions were not intended to exclude past drug addicts, but rather to ensure a safe workforce. The Court noted that PMA faces a “culture that accepted the use of drugs and alcohol in the workplace.” The Court further noted that there was no evidence “that defendant targeted or attempted to target recovered drug addicts, as distinct from recreational uses.”

The Court attempted to distinguish a 2004 Ninth Circuit case finding for the employee by noting that, in that case, perhaps the employer was motivated by discrimination against the employee, due to his past addiction, because the employee brought in a note from Alcoholics Anonymous. Hernandez v. Hughes Missile Systems Co. (9th Cir. 2004) 362 F.3d 564. The Court might have well just said it was changing its mind, and that, it was simply deciding that discriminating against someone with a history of drug abuse was acceptable.

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