Articles Posted in Disability at Workplace

One of the hallmarks and great advantages of California disability laws, which encompasses employers’ obligation to engage in interactive process to find reasonable accommodations to qualifying employees with a disability or a medical condition, is its flexibility. Generally, the employer must consider various solutions to accommodating an employee and be reasonable creative and considering different types of things that the company can do to help the disabled worker remain in the workforce.
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One of such accommodations, which can be particularly relevant in cases where an employee has a psychological/mental disability is working from home. In Humphrey v. Memorial Hospitals Association, the Ninth Circuit specifically noted that allowing an employee who suffered from OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) to work from home can be one type of reasonable accommodation that should be considered if it may be effective and if performing that employee’s job duties from home would not impose undue hardship on the employer. In that case, the other fact that was helpful to plaintiff is demonstrating that some of her co-workers worked from home, while she was denied that accommodation, and that company had a policy of allowing employee to work from home.

Even though the employer argued that there was no guarantee that working from home would be an effective accommodation to claimant, the court was not persuaded, as one doctor’s testimony that working from home could have been effective was sufficient to trigger liability against the employer for failure to provide such an accommodation.

Having been regularly representing registered nurses, nursing assistants and medical assistants who work for major hospitals and other healthcare facilities in California, including such groups as Kaiser, Stanford Hospitals, and Sutter Health, I see the same patter of work related injuries over and over. A nurse or an assistant is lifting a patient or moving a heavy object, causing an injury to his/her wrist or back, which often requires time of work, prolonged treatment and even a surgery. Some of those wrist/arm and back problems never go away and force the nurses to switch their jobs altogether.

As simple and as obvious as it might sound, strengthening the major groups of muscles in your back and arms/wrists by regularly working out, and just as importantly – having a brief stretching and warm up routine for the muscles and joints you use the most at work can take you a long way toward preventing those injuries. If, for instance, tennis players take their warm-up of their arms, legs and back so seriously in order to prevent injuries associated with sudden weight or impact, so should nurses and their staff do. While strengthening muscles and 5 – 10 minute warm-up before the shift will not guarantee an injury-free career, these simple steps will likely significantly reduce the frequency and gravity of the symptoms associated with pushing, pulling and lifting heavy objects.

Preventing or minimizing a risk of injury might require a degree of diligence and discipline from you, but it is surely a better option than dealing with the pain resulting from those injuries, and disability issues at workplace that may arise as a result.

It is not uncommon for a California employer to justify its termination of the disabled worker and it’s failure to engage in interactive process to find reasonable accommodations as require by law under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, by arguing that because the didn’t owe the duty to engage in interactive process because the terminated employee never requested it.

The California courts, however, routinely disagree with that argument by employers. Thus, the second district rejected such an argument by an employer, United Air Lines, where the company suggested that a disabled employee must first come forward and request a specific accommodation before the employer has a duty to investigate such an accommodation. The court reminded the employer that the law does not require the worker to speak any magic words before the disabled employee is subject to its protections. Of course, as the court continued to explain, the employee can’t expect the employer to read his mind and know he secretly wanted a particular accommodation and sue the employer for not providing it. The employer is also normally not liable for failing to accommodate a disability of which he had no knowledge. Finally, an employer has no duty to accommodate an employee who denies having a disability or denies a need for accommodation. Prillman v. United Air Lines, Inc. (1997).

However, the employer is likely to have the duty to engage in interactive process with a worker who the employer knows is disabled or who the employer perceives to be disabled.

The California Labor Code section 132(a) is yet another device prohibition discrimination against injured workers (in addition to California Fair Employment and Housing Act or “FEHA”). This section prohibits employer discrimination against an employee based on:

* Applying or intending to apply for workers’ compensation benefits; or

* Receiving a rating, award or settlement; or

Both ADA (Americans with Disabilities act) and its California counterpart – FEHA (Fair Employment and Housing Act) cover disabled employees as well as employees whom the employer has regarded or treated as having had any physical or mental disability or medical condition that makes achievement of a major life activity difficult.

California Government Code section 12940(m) requires covered employers to make reasonable accommodations for the known physical or mental disability of an employee, unless undue hardship on the employer’s business would result. Under section 12940(f)(2) states that an employer may require any examinations of inquiries so long as they are job related and consistent with business necessity to determine its employees’ health condition for the purpose of compliance with disability laws.

The FEHA’s requirement of reasonable accommodations is triggered when the employer becomes aware of an employee’s disability, which may occur because it is an obvious disability, the employee has disclosed the condition,or the employer has obtained a medical opinion through a fitness for duty examination. The three primary results of a medical examination are: (1) the employee is qualified to perform the job without the need for any accommodation and poses no safety risk; (2) the employee will be able to perform his job with a reasonable accommodation; or (3) the employee is not qualified to perform the job due to his condition or due to a safety risk, and there are no reasonable accommodations that would enable for that worker to perform the essential duties of his job.

FEHA (Fair Employment and Housing Act) prohibits disability discrimination and pregnancy based discrimination in California. To prove a wrongful termination claim based on pregnancy discrimination and failure to provide reasonable accommodations to a pregnant employee at workplace, first she has to prove that her condition constitutes disability within the meaning of the statute Cal. Gov. Code section 12940(m) which prohibits employment discrimination based on actual or perceived disability, as normal pregnancy itself is not considered disability entitling an employee to special accommodations.

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Under California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) physical disability is defined as a condition that limits a major life activity. Thus, the female worker must show that a condition arising out of her pregnancy limited one or more of her major life conditions. An employee must specific state which of her daily functions was impaired by the condition arising out of pregnancy and what exactly she was not able to do in a course of her daily life that she would have otherwise been able to do.

In one case, the court rejected the employee’s argument that her morning sickness during pregnancy constituted disability entitling her to the protection of pregnancy and disability discrimination laws. The court stated that according to Fair Employment and Housing Commission regulation 7291.2(g) a woman is “considered to be ‘disabled by pregnancy’ if she is suffering from severe ‘morning sickness’.”

Two critical aspects of proving (discriminatory) workplace retaliation for filing a workers compensation claim or engaging in other protected activity are: (1) proving causal relationship between the filing of the the workers compensation claim (or engaging in other protected activity) and the discriminatory actions by the employer; and (2) proving tat the employee was qualified and able to perform his or her job at the time when discrimination took place.

Careful investigation of the facts and circumstances of the employee’s employment and wrongful termination is essential. Obviously, with respect to establishing the causal relationship, the closer in proximity of time the discriminatory conduct is to the employer’s learning of the employee’s filing a workers compensation claim, the more likely the causal link will seem to the judge, jury, or an arbitrator.

The first very important component of proving retaliation is in disproving a possible legitimate reason for termination, the most common of which is poor performance. Thus, in a case of alleged retaliation, like in most other discrimination claims, an attorney should seek evidence such as the employee’s productivity and performance records, including all evaluations, commendations, promotions, raises, and any disciplinary measures.

It is not uncommon for an employer to terminate an employee because of his or her disability in violation of FEHA and other anti-discrimination laws, and attempt to mask disability discrimination and failure to provide reasonable accommodations by telling an employee while terminating him that he can apply for other jobs in the company that might suit him. This move seems to be particularly obvious when the employer tells the employee that he should apply for any job externally, like any other outside applicant, not having any priority in hiring or consideration for any position.

The California courts are unimpressed with this move to go around the law protecting disabled workers. The Ninth Circuit specifically held in Barnett v. U.S. Air. Inc. (9th Cir. 2000) 228 F.3d 1105 that an offer to bid on other jobs, “a right the employee already had,” did not represent reasonable accommodations as required by law. Reassignment involves more than a mere opportunity for disabled employees to compete. Quoting EEOC guidelines, the court concluded that reassignment within the meaning of reasonable accommodations means that the employee gets the vacant position if he/she is qualified for it. Otherwise, reassignment would be of little value and would not be implemented as Congresses intended it when it enacted disability anti-discrimination laws.

The California Supreme Court held that high blood pressure (hypertension) may be a protected disability at workplace within the meaning of Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) in American National Insurance Co. v. Fair Employment and Housing Commission 32 Cal.3d 603 (1982). In that case, an insurance company terminated a sale and debit agent because of his elevated blood pressure. The Supreme Court held that high blood pressure may be a “physical handicap” under the FEHA, since the statutory definition of the protected disability under Cal. Gov. Code section 12926(h) permits consideration of all handicaps that are physical, and not only those are are presently disabling.

In explaining section 12926(h), the court resorted to the literal definition of the term “handicap” as defined in Webster’s dictionary: “physical handicap includes …, or any other health impairment which requires special education or related services. The Court further emphasized that the law protecting workers from being discriminated based on their disability clearly was designed to prevent employers from acting arbitrarily against physical condition that, whether actually or potentially handicapping, may present no current job disability or job-related health risk.

Thus, the mere fact that a worker isn’t constantly experiencing the symptoms of high-blood pressure, doesn’t mean that he is not disabled within the meaning of FEHA, as he or she does face an actual risk of experiencing those disabling symptoms.

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act basically defines two categories of disability: mental disability and physical disability. Each category contains its own specific definitions. In addition, under FEHA, an employee with a “medical condition” which is not quite considered a disability is also entitled to a reasonable accommodation.

The following are the specific definitions of physical disability under FEHA:having any physiological disease, disorder, condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss that affects one or more of several body systems and limits a major life activity. The body systems listed include the neurological, immunological, muscular and skeletal, respiratory, speech, reproductive, digestive, urinary, lymphatic, skin, and endocrine systems. The major life activity is considered limited if it makes the achievement of that major activity difficult.

It should be noted that sexual behavior disorders, compulsive gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, or psychoactive substance use disorders resulting form the current unlawful use of controlled substances or other drugs, are specifically excluded and are not protected as disabilities under FEHA.