Disability Discrimination: When Can an Employer Terminate a Disabled Employee?

Wallace v. County of Stanislaus

Court of Appeal, 5th Appellate District, F068068 (February 25, 2016)

Consider a hypothetical with the following facts: [1] (1) an employer is advised by a physician than an employee’s physical condition renders him or her unable to perform essential job duties even with reasonable accommodation, (2) the physician’s evaluation is, in fact, correct, and (3) the employer removes the employee from the position because of the physical condition.  Under Government Code §12940(a)(1), the employer has clearly not engaged in impermissible discrimination.

What did Stanislaus County do wrong?

Facts: Wallace was hired by Stanislaus County as a deputy sheriff.  He injured his knee and filed a workers’ compensation claim.  Wallace had surgery and then returned to work on light duty.  Wallace was thereafter on a paid leave of absence for four months.  He returned on another light duty assignment.  Wallace went out on another leave of absence because of the knee injury, when his paid leave ran out.

Thereafter, Wallace received additional work restrictions and was offered an assignment of bailiff at his pre-injury rate of pay.  There were no performance issues.  Performance evaluations were above average.

Wallace underwent an agreed medical exam which resulted in a report listing various “preclusions” relating to lifting, pushing, pulling, climbing, squatting, kneeling, crouching, crawling, pivoting, and walking.  Wallace was removed from his job because of a lack of modified or alternative work available.  Wallace stated he could perform the job function of a bailiff (and other positions).

The County placed Wallace on an unpaid leave of absence as an “accommodation.”  The unpaid leave of absence lasted over a year.  Wallace filed a disability discrimination complaint.  About two years after the unpaid leave of absence, and after the County received a fitness for duty exam report, the County returned Wallace to full duty as a patrol officer.  Wallace sued for damages for lost compensation, emotional distress and attorney’s fees.

Legal issue:

The appellate court reversed the trial court based upon an erroneous jury instruction.  Of relevance for understanding California discrimination claims is that California law does not require an employee with an actual or perceived disability to prove that the employer’s adverse employment action was motivated by animosity or ill will against the employee.  Instead, California’s statutory scheme protects employees from an employer’s erroneous or mistaken beliefs about the employee’s physical condition.  In short, the Legislature decided that the financial consequences of an employer’s mistaken belief that an employee is unable to safely perform a jo’s essential functions should be borne by the employer, not the employee, even if the employer’s mistake was reasonable and made in good faith.[2]

The definition of “physical disability” includes “being regarded or treated by the employer … as having, or having had, any physical condition that makes achievement of a major life activity difficult.”[3]

The Court held that a properly instructed jury would have found that Wallace’s disability was a substantial motivating reason for the County’s decision to remove him from his job as a bailiff.  The County’s mistaken belief that Wallace was unable to perform his job safely is not a defense to the claim of disability discrimination.

Comments

Not infrequently, employers find themselves in this situation.  It is somewhat ironic that the Wallace decision consists of 32-pages plus a 3-page concurring opinion in reversing a trial court about how an employer should handle a disability claim of this nature.   Moreover, the Fair Employment & Housing Act (“FEHA”) applies to employers with five or more employees.  Not everyone has a human resources department and, even when they do (i.e., County of Stanislaus) the recommendation and action taken is not always accurate.

[1] Quoting from Justice Poochigian’s concurring opinion in the Wallace decision.

[2] Wallace at page 2.

[3] Government Code §12926(m)(4).