Employees may be considered disabled if they cannot perform all duties listed for their job title or classification.
Under both state and federal law, employers are required to make accommodations for employees with injuries or conditions that qualify as a disability and prevent them from carrying out the job duties required for their position or job title. As one recent case shows, this can hold true even if the employee is fully capable of performing all the duties required in their daily work routine.
The case involved a California Highway Patrol Officer who was diagnosed with carpal tunnel and a degenerative back condition in 2004. Both of these conditions were found to be work-related and aggravated by filing reports and getting out of a patrol car respectively. The officer was transferred to a light-duty desk position so that he would not have to stress his back further.
In 2006, the officer was examined again pursuant to a worker’s compensation claim. The examination found that he could not perform the “14 critical tasks” expected of all highway patrol officers, which included tasks such as dragging a 200-pound person 50 feet or handcuffing a person who was resisting arrest. The officer no longer had to do any of these tasks in his light-duty desk assignment, but nonetheless as a result of this finding the officer was found unfit for duty and sent home. He later chose to retire, but was denied industrial disability retirement.
Upon appeal, the court found that the officer did in fact deserve disability because, although he may have been physically qualified to perform the duties that were actually required of him on a daily basis, he was not qualified to perform all the duties expected of his job title that could theoretically be assigned to him at any time.
This ruling depends upon a distinction between an employee’s job title or classification and their assignment or actual duties. For example, the defense cited the case of a California Highway Patrol Sergeant with multiple back injuries and chronic pain who was not found to be disabled because physical activity was not part of his usual job duties. The appeals court responded that this case was not comparable because sergeants categorically have more supervisory and less physical duties, whereas a rank and file officer always has physical duties in his job description and must be able to perform them even if his is assigned to a desk job.
This ruling should set an important precedent to help protect disabled employees from employers who would invent light-duty assignments for them in an attempt to get out of paying disability.