ADA & Disabilities, California HR

Employer’s Past Practices Can Actually Expand Liability for Failure to Accommodate

In this case involving police recruits who were injured during training at the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Police Academy, the court confirmed that an employee may not be a qualified individual for purposes of a discrimination claim but may be a qualified individual for purposes of a failure-to-accommodate claim. The case also illustrates how an employer’s past practices can affect the scope of its duties to disabled employees under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

CaliforniaPolice Recruits Injured During Training Placed in Light-Duty Assignments

Five recruits suffered temporary injuries while they were training at the LAPD’s Police Academy. At the time they were injured, the LAPD had been assigning injured recruits to light-duty administrative positions indefinitely until their injuries healed or they became permanently disabled. The department ended that practice while the five recruits were still recuperating from their injuries.

Rather than allowing the recruits to remain in their light-duty assignments, the LAPD asked them to resign, telling them that they would be terminated unless they could get immediate medical clearance to return to the academy. None of the recruits was able to obtain the necessary clearance, and the police department terminated them or forced them to resign. The recruits sued the LAPD under the FEHA.

At trial, a jury found that the city unlawfully discriminated against the recruits based on their physical disabilities, failed to provide them reasonable accommodations, and failed to engage in the interactive process required by the FEHA.

The city challenged the jury’s verdict on a number of grounds, including that the recruits weren’t “qualified individuals” under the FEHA because they couldn’t perform the essential duties of a police recruit with or without a reasonable accommodation, and it wasn’t required to accommodate them by making their temporary light-duty positions permanent or by transferring them to other jobs.

Recruits Not Qualified Individuals for Purposes of Discrimination Claim

To establish a disability discrimination claim, a disabled employee must establish that he is a “qualified individual”—that is, he can perform the essential functions of his position with or without a reasonable accommodation. The city argued that because the disabled individuals were hired as police recruits, they had to prove they could perform the essential functions of a police recruit to prevail on their discrimination claim. However, the recruits argued that the relevant question was whether they could perform the essential functions of the light-duty positions to which they sought reassignment.

The court clarified that for a discrimination claim, the relevant question is whether the employee can perform the essential functions of the job he held. Therefore, the recruits had to establish that they could perform the essential functions of a police recruit.

The undisputed evidence showed that recruits must be able to perform the same duties as police officers. Those duties are well-defined by a variety of LAPD standards and certification requirements, and include the ability to go over a 6-foot fence within a specified time, sprint 500 yards, navigate an obstacle course, and drag a 150-pound dummy a certain distance. It was undisputed that the injured recruits could not perform those functions.

The recruits argued that they could perform the essential functions of the police officer position with the accommodation of being placed in a light-duty position. However, the court clarified that in a discrimination claim under the FEHA, an accommodation isn’t “reasonable” if it eliminates one or more essential functions of the job.

Different Analysis for Failure-to-Accommodate Claim

The analysis was significantly different for the recruits’ claim that the city failed to accommodate their disabilities. In a failure-to-accommodate claim, the employee still must prove he is a qualified individual. But if he contends that the employer failed to accommodate him by reassigning him to another position, he can prove he is a qualified individual by establishing that he can perform the essential functions of the job to which he seeks reassignment rather than the essential functions of his existing position. So, for the accommodation claim, the relevant question was whether the recruits could perform the essential functions of the light-duty assignments they sought.

The court reiterated that when a disabled employee requests reassignment as an accommodation, the FEHA requires the employer to offer him a vacant “comparable” or “lower-grade” position for which he is qualified. The FEHA doesn’t require accommodation if there are no vacant positions that the employee is qualified to fill, nor is the employer required to promote the employee or create a new position for him. An employer is relieved of its obligation to reassign an employee only if reassignment would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

The city argued that the FEHA doesn’t require employers to accommodate employees by placing them in light-duty positions indefinitely or converting temporary assignments into permanent jobs. But the court pointed out that while the FEHA may not require those things, if an employer’s policies or past practices show that such accommodations are reasonable, the employer may violate the FEHA by not making the accommodations available to all employees.

In other words, the FEHA doesn’t require an employer to make a disabled employee’s temporary assignment permanent or create a new position for a disabled employee unless the employer has regularly offered such assistance to disabled employees in the past.

The court pointed to past cases in which employers were obligated to provide disabled employees permanent assignments to light-duty positions because they had a consistent policy of doing so for other employees. In other cases, courts found no duty to make such assignments permanent because, for example, they had no practice of assigning disabled employees to light-duty positions or did so only temporarily.

In this case, because the city had a long-standing practice of allowing employees to remain in light-duty assignments until they healed or until their disabilities became permanent, it couldn’t treat the recruits differently. Atkins v. City of Los Angeles (California Court of Appeal, 2nd Appellate District, 2/14/17).

Bottom Line

This case illustrates the seemingly counterintuitive fact that there are situations in which an employee might not be a qualified individual for purposes of a discrimination claim, but he might be a qualified individual for purposes of a failure-to-accommodate claim.

While this was a unique case involving police recruits, many employers have a practice of assigning injured employees to light duty. This case shows that your own practices can actually expand your liability under the FEHA.

Matthew A. Goodin, a contributor to the California Employment Law Letter, can be reached at Epstein, Becker & Green, P.C., in San Francisco, mgoodin@ebglaw.com.