Even Unintentional Disability Discrimination is Actionable in California

In a decision that may lead employers to feel a little less gratified on Thanksgiving Day, a California appellate court determined last week that “even a legitimate company policy, if mistakenly applied,” can lead to liability for disability discrimination in the Golden State.  Specifically, the Court of Appeal ruled that “a lack of [discriminatory] animus does not preclude liability for a disability discrimination claim.”  A copy of that decision in is available at this link.

The plaintiff in Glynn v. Superior Court was a pharmaceutical sales representative who requested and obtained a leave of absence from his employer due to an eye condition that left him unable to drive.  So far so good.  But things started to take a turn for the worse when the employer declined to reassign the plaintiff to a new job in the company that did not require driving (even though the plaintiff applied for several such positions).

Things got even worse yet when a temporary corporate benefits staffer mistakenly concluded that the plaintiff had transitioned from short-term disability to long-term disability.  This mistake led the staffer to conclude, innocently but incorrectly, that the plaintiff was unable to work with or without a reasonable accommodation.  Based on that seemingly good-faith mistake, the staffer fired the plaintiff (even though the employer’s policies did not allow such a termination unless the employee actually applied for and was receiving long-term disability benefits).  The plaintiff tried to correct the misunderstandings over the course of a few months, but the employer ignored his entreaties.

Things went from worse to worst when the plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, disability discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, Cal. Govt. Code §§ 12940 et seq. (“FEHA”).  After realizing that a mistake was at the root of terminating the plaintiff’s employment, the employer tried to make things better by offering to reinstate him.  However, the plaintiff rejected that offer because the employer did not identify any specific position being offered or the rate of compensation.

With seemingly nothing left to do but defend itself in litigation, the employer persuaded the Los Angeles County Superior Court to dismiss the plaintiff’s disability-discrimination claim.  However, the plaintiff filed an emergency appeal and convinced California’s Second Appellate District to reverse that dismissal.  The Court of Appeal reasoned that the FEHA “‘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.’”

Ultimately, the appellate court opined that “‘the financial consequences of an employer’s mistaken belief that an employee is unable to safely perform a job’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.’”  This is not to say that liability in such circumstances is a forgone conclusion; it remains to be seen whether a jury might forgive such missteps if they do not appear to be borne of any discriminatory animus.  Still, there are important lessons to be learned from this decision.

The take away is that disability accommodation is an area of the workplace that presents many traps for the unwary.  At the same time, any decision to terminate an employee, particularly one who is arguably entitled to some type of disability accommodation, can lead to costly litigation.  Similarly, an offer to reinstate a terminated employee may provide an employer with a valuable defense that might reduce exposure, but that offer must be handled correctly to be effective.  Therefore, it is advisable to review such decisions with an experienced employment attorney before executing them.