Disability Accommodations for a Disability That Does Not Require Accommodations?

Disability AccommodationsDisability accommodations – Moore v. Regents of the University of California. Let’s say that an employee approaches his or her manager, and asks for disability accommodations. And, let’s say that the employee does not actually have any conditions that qualify as a disability under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). In this case, can the employee be protected by FEHA if the employer refuses to consider granting the disability accommodations?

The answer, according to a California appeals court, is yes. In the case of Moore v. Regents of the University of California, the Court of Appeals of California for the Fourth District, Division One, found that an employer’s unwillingness to engage in an interactive process with an employee who requested an accommodation could constitute a violation of FEHA – even if the employee did not have a condition that meets FEHA’s definition of a disability.

Did the University of California Violate an Employee’s Disability Accommodations FEHA Rights?

Deborah Moore worked in the Marketing and Communications Department of the University of California San Diego. After she was diagnosed with idiopathic cardiomyopathy, she informed her employer. She was later demoted, and eventually, her position was eliminated.

Moore filed a complaint asserting that UCSD discriminated against her on the basis of a disability, in violation of FEHA. She alleged, among other claims, that UCSD failed to accommodate her disability. She also alleged that UCSD failed in its duty, under FEHA, to engage in a “timely, good faith, interactive process” with an employee who has requested accommodation for a disability.

The trial court that originally handled Moore’s case dismissed her complaint. It held that Moore did not have a disability that required disability accommodations under FEHA, and thus UCSD did not have an obligation to engage in an interactive process with her.

However, the appeals court disagreed. The court held that it is possible for an employer to violate FEHA by refusing to engage in the interactive process with an employee who claims to require disability accommodation, even if the employee ultimately was not entitled to disability accommodations.

According to the ruling, if an employer regards an employee as having a disability, then the employee is entitled to make a FEHA claim, on the grounds that the employer failed to engage in the interactive process. The Court held that the point of this process is to find appropriate accommodations for employees who have conditions that are considered disabilities under FEHA, or for employees who are merely regarded as disabled by their employers.

The Court held that it would be reasonable for a finder of fact (such as a judge or jury) to conclude that UCSD regarded Moore as disabled. On this basis, the Court ruled that the trial court had erred in granting summary judgment on Moore’s cause of action related to failure to participate in the interactive process. [Read more…]

Disability Discrimination Clarified By CA Appeals Court

Disability DiscriminationWallace v. County of Stanislaus: A California appeals court clarifies what counts as disability discrimination. Dennis Wallace filed a complaint against Stanislaus County, California after he was fired from his job with the sheriff’s department after suffering a knee injury. He alleged that he was fired due to a disability, even though he could have performed his job with proper accommodations – and thus the county violated the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

At trial, the jury found that the county treated Wallace as a person with a disability, and that Wallace was capable of performing his job with or without the proper accommodations. But despite these findings, the jury sided with the county, and Wallace’s complaint of disability discrimination was dismissed.

Why? Because the judge had instructed the jury that Wallace had a burden to demonstrate that the county regarded or treated him “as having a disability in order to discriminate.” In other words, the jury was told that Wallace needed to show that the county was motivated by ill will toward Wallace and used disability as an excuse to fire him. The jury found that this burden had not been met, and so the disability discrimination claim was resolved in favor of the county.

Wallace appealed, arguing that the jury instructions were incorrect, and that FEHA prohibits disability discrimination even when an employer has no animus against the employee. The Court of Appeal for the Fifth Appellate District of California agreed and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

The Court’s Reasoning

The Supreme Court set a well-known standard for employment discrimination cases in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. Under McDonnell Douglas, there is a three stage test for complaints.

  • First, the burden is on the plaintiff to make a prima facie showing that employment discrimination took place.
  • If the plaintiff meets this burden, then the burden shifts to the employer, who must provide a legitimate reason for taking the negative employment action in question (such as a firing),
  • If the employer meets this burden, then the burden shifts back to the plaintiff, who can prove that discrimination took place by providing evidence that the employer had a discriminatory motive. This often involves demonstrating that the reason given by the employer was just a pretext for discrimination.

In Wallace, the appeals court clarified that the McDonnell Douglas test is only to be used if the plaintiff has no direct evidence of discrimination. In Wallace, there was direct evidence of discrimination, being as the employer acknowledged that Wallace’s disability was the reason he was fired.

The court held that when there is direct evidence of discrimination based on disability, the focus should not be on the employer’s motivations. Rather, the focus should be on whether the employee was able to perform essential job functions, whether a reasonable accommodation would allow the employee to perform these functions, and whether the accommodation would impose too much of a hardship on the employer. Thus, the court held that the instruction given to the jury was in error. [Read more…]


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