Employer Does Not Need To Have “Discriminatory Intent” To Found Liable For Disability Discrimination

Author: Regina Silva

In Wallace v. County of Stanislaus (2016) 199 Cal.Rptr.3d 462, a sheriff’s deputy brought a disability discrimination case against a County based on the County’s removing the sheriff’s deputy from his job as a bailiff, and placing him on an unpaid leave of absence based on an assessment the sheriff’s deputy could not safely perform his job duties as a bailiff.  On appeal, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision to issue a jury instruction defining discriminatory animus in the context of an employer’s intent to discriminate against a disabled employee, finding it was not necessary to prove intent to discriminate.

In Wallace, sheriff’s deputy Wallace worked for the County of Stanislaus since 1997.  Throughout his employment, Wallace filed numerous worker’s compensation claims for alleged injuries that took place on the job.  Wallace was provided various accommodations, such as being re-assigned to light duty, during the periods of time in which he could not perform the essential functions of his position.

In 2009, Wallace received a permanent work restriction related to a permanent disability rating he received for his left knee.  After engaging in an interactive process with Wallace, the County determined it could accommodate Wallace by placing him to work as a bailiff in the courts.

In January 2011, Wallace’s work restrictions changed again, and a medical report was issued describing a number of “preclusions” or limitations to Wallace’s ability to perform his job functions.  The County interpreted these preclusions to mean Wallace could not safety perform the essential functions of his job and concluded the only alternative available was to keep Wallace on an unpaid leave of absence.   During a meeting, Wallace asserted he could continue to perform his job functions as a bailiff, and asked to be returned to this position.  The County refused indicating it needed to follow the medical report.  After Wallace’s fitness for duty evaluation was completed in early 2013, which cleared him to full duty as a Deputy Sheriff, Wallace was returned to his position as Deputy Sheriff.

Discrimination Claims

Wallace sued the County alleging claims for disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, and failure to engage in the interactive process.

During trial, the court modified California Civil Jury Instruction 2540 to include a requirement the County regarded or treated Wallace “as having a disability in order to discriminate.”  The jury found the County treated Wallace as disabled, Wallace was able to perform his essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodation, and the County failed to prove Wallace could not safety perform his job functions. However, the jury concluded the County did not regard or treat Wallace as disabled “in order to discriminate.”  Judgment was entered in favor of the County.

On appeal, Wallace argued the trial court did not properly instruct the jury as to disability discrimination.

The Court of Appeal held that in disability discrimination cases, courts should not apply the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting test, which shifts the burden of proof from employee to employer and back where there is circumstantial evidence of discrimination.  The appellate court relied on the California Supreme Court’s decision in Harris v. City of Santa Monica (2003) 56 Cal.4th 203, which held an employer discriminates against an employee because of a disability when the disability is a substantial motivating reason for the employer’s decision to subject the employee to an adverse employment action.  Hence, an employee need not prove the employer had a discriminatory animus when it takes an adverse employment action against the employee.

The Court of Appeal concluded the law does not require an employee with an actual or perceived disability to prove the employer’s adverse action was motivated by some form of animus or ill will towards the employee.  In addition, the Court noted even if the employer had a good faith mistaken belief as to whether or not the employee could perform his essential job functions, the financial consequences of that mistake should be absorbed by the employer (not employee).

Finding the instructional error was prejudicial, the Court remanded Wallace’s claim for disability discrimination back to the trial court for a retrial regarding the amount of damages resulting from the County’s decision to place Wallace on an unpaid leave of absence from 2011 to 2013, when Wallace returned to his job duties as a deputy sheriff.

What does this mean?

Employers cannot rely on mistaken belief as a defense to disability discrimination claims.  Nor should employers refuse to engage in any further discussion or analysis after receiving a medical report or other documentation indicating an employee cannot perform their essential job functions, when the employee claims that he/she can actually perform their job duties.  At a minimum, when faced with conflicting information, the employer should conduct a further analysis to get to the bottom of whether or not the employee can perform their essential job functions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ms. Silva is a graduate of University of the Pacific.  She is Director of Employment Practices in the firm’s Employment Practices Group.  She is a former prosecutor and has considerable trial experience.  Contact her at rsilva@tysonmendes.com.

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