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Individuals who live with a disability may face additional challenges in the workplace due totheir disability. Under California law, however, employers may not discriminate or terminatedisabled employees solely because of their disabled status. The Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) requires that employers offer disabled employees reasonable accommodationsin order to perform job tasks. On the other hand, an employer may not be required to continuethe employment of disabled employee who cannot perform their essential job duties even withreasonable accommodations. A recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision demonstrateshow an employee can be legally terminated due, in part, to their disability.

Lawler v. Montblanc N. Am.

In Lawler v. Montblanc N. Am., an employee working as a store manager suffered from achronic form of arthritis, which indirectly led to the employee severely injuring her foot. After having already requested a shorter work schedule due to her arthritis, under the advisementof her physician, the employee then requested a leave of absence over a period of severalmonths. This requested leave coincided with the busiest sales season of the year for the employer, in which store managers were required to be at work at least 40 hours per week.After asking the employee’s physician whether any reasonable accommodations couldbe made to allow the employee to work during this period, the employer was told that no accommodations could be made and that the employee needed to be off from work. The employer subsequently terminated the employee. The employee then filed a claim with the Department of Fair Housing and Employment, alleging, among other things, that she had suffered disability discrimination. Though originally filed in state court the employer successfully removed to the case to federal court pursuant to diversity jurisdiction.

The Ninth Circuit Court began by observing that under the FEHA an employer cannot terminate an employee because of an employee’s physical disability. An employer can only legallyterminate a physically disabled employee if the employee cannot perform the “essential duties”of the job with reasonable accommodations. Hence, in order to prevail on a claim of disability discrimination an employee must show that: 1) (s)he is a member of a protected class, that is,a “qualified individual” under FEHA; 2) (s)he was performing competently in the position sheheld; 3) (s)he suffered an adverse employment action, such as termination; and (4) some other circumstances that suggest a discriminatory motive. The Court noted further that in California an employee can establish that he/she is a qualified individual by demonstrating that he shewas able to do the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

The Lawler court then found that the employee did not demonstrate that she was able to perform her job duties with or without reasonable accommodation. Instead, the employee admitted that her disability made it impossible for her to perform her duties as store manager.The employee had not worked at all since going on disability leave and since being terminated. It was the employee’s burden to show that she could work at some point after she filed for disability and carry out her essential job functions with reasonable accommodation, which the employee failed to do. Consequently, as a result of the employee’s failure of provide the Lawlercourt granted summary judgment in favor of the employer.

What to Take from the Lawler Decision

The Lawler decision clarifies the factors the courts will consider when determining whether anemployee has suffered disability discrimination. Employees who feel that they have suffered discrimination, due to a physical disability, must show that they could perform the essential duties of their job with or without reasonable accommodations. In addition, it appears thatcourts will look more favorably on a terminated employee who is subsequently able to secure employment and perform essential job functions of their prior job though still physical disabled or restricted in some way. While California state law does offer protection to individuals working with physical disabilities, employers may still be well within their rights to terminate such an employee if the disability precludes them from performing their jobs. If you feel that you havebeen discriminated against due to a disability, contact the Law Office of George G. Romain for a free consultation.

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