Articles Posted in Disability Discrimination

Once an employer becomes aware of the need for accommodation for a qualifying disabled employee, that employer has a mandatory obligation under the law to engage in an interactive process with the employee to identify and implement appropriate reasonable accommodations. An appropriate reasonable accommodation must be effective in enabling the employee to perform the duties of the position.

The interactive process requires communication and good-faith exploration of possible accommodations between employers and individual employees, and neither side can delay or obstruct the process. A party or an employer that obstructs or delays an interactive process may be found liable for acting in bad faith.

san francisco bay area employment law wrongful terminationThe duty to accommodate disability is a continuing duty that is not exhausted by one effort. The EEOC Enforcement Guidance notes that an employer must consider each request for reasonable accommodation, and that if a reasonable accommodation turns out to be ineffective and the employee with disability remains unable to perform an essential function, the employer must consider whether there would be an alternative reasonable accommodation that would not pose an undue hardship. This rule fosters the framework of cooperative problem solving contemplated by the law, by encouraging employers to seek to find accommodations that really work, while preventing employees from requesting the most drastic and burdensome accommodations possible.

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 second district made an important distinction between disability discrimination and failure to provide reasonable accommodations in Jensen v. Wells Fargo Bank 85 Cal.App.4th 245 (2000). In that decision, the court noted that the elements of a failure to accommodate claim are similar to the elements of disability discrimination under under California Gov. Code section 12940(a), but there are several important differences. For the purposes of the failure to accommodate claim, the employee does not need to show that he is able to perform the essential functions of his present job (like it is necessary to show in order to prove discrimination), but only that he or she is able to perform the duties of the job which he or she is seeking to be reassigned to.

Even more importantly, in claims for failure to accommodate, it does not matter whether the employee was terminated, suspended or otherwise disciplined in retaliation for his disability (like it is required in discrimination claims). The employer’s mere failure to reasonable accommodate a disabled individual is a violation of the statute in and of itself. Cal.Gov. Code section 12940(k).

In other words, prevailing on a disability discrimination claim is harder than proving failure to accommodate, because it requires showing that the employee suffered an adverse employment action, and that there is a causal link between the disability/medical condition and the adverse employment action, while no adverse employment action needs to be shown in order to prevail on a separate claim for failure to provide reasonable accommodations to a disabled worker.

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.

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