HR Management & Compliance

Wrongful Termination: Why Employee Won $250,000 After Telling Employer He Had Cancer

You know you may have an obligation to accommodate a disabled employee or risk a lawsuit for disability discrimination. But you might not be aware that in California you can also be sued for discriminating against workers with certain medical conditions–even if they are notdisabled and do not need an accommodation. That’s what happened recently to one California employer who was hit with a $250,000 jury verdict after firing an employee with cancer.

Employee Diagnosed With Cancer

The case involved Jalil Hazrati, who was in charge of formulating and manufacturing generic drugs for a small Los Angeles company, Liquipharm, Inc. He had worked for the firm for nine years when he had an operation for prostate cancer. A year later the cancer had spread to his bones.Hazrati’s attorney, David L. Moring, told CEA Hazrati had an excellent performance record and had recently been promoted to vice president. But a month after the promotion, Hazrati said he informed the company’s owners he had bone cancer and from then on his relationship with Liquipharm deteriorated.

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Performance Issues Lead To Termination

Hazrati’s attorney charged that the company began drafting memos documenting supposed performance and disciplinary problems to set Hazrati up to be fired. About a year later, Hazrati was terminated.

Medical Condition Discrimination?

Hazrati sued Liquipharm for discrimination in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, which applies to employers with five or more employees. But he didn’t claim the company discriminated against him because he was disabled. Instead, he relied on a provision in the law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of an employee’s “medical condition,” which includes cancer. According to Hazrati’s attorney, Liquipharm contended it never knew Hazrati had cancer, and therefore could not have discriminated against him. It claimed Hazrati was fired because the company had suffered a financial loss that year. Liquipharm’s attorneys declined to comment on the case.

Jury Sides With Employee

A jury rejected Liquipharm’s arguments and awarded Hazrati $250,000 in damages for lost wages and emotional distress–more than he had asked for at trial or during settlement negotiations where his initial demand was only $35,000.

When Serious Illness Is Protected

California law prohibiting discrimination against someone who is not disabled but has a medical condition such as cancer is complicated, and courts have disagreed on whether conditions other than cancer are covered. But the jury’s award is an important reminder that state and federal law might protect employees with any type of serious illness even if the condition doesn’t rise to the level of a ‘disability.’ For example, both state and federal law prohibit discrimination against employees who are regarded as disabled even if they actually aren’t. And an employee with a serious medical condition may take time off under the California and federal family leave acts, which apply if you have 50 or more employees. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court is also considering whether federal disability law protects an employee who has a medical condition like HIV but has no symptoms.

Use Caution

Regardless of the legal niceties, as a practical matter you don’t want to find yourself explaining to a jury why you fired a worker who suffers from a serious illness. If someone’s health problems interfere with their work, explore whether you can offer a reasonable accommodation. And if there are performance issues, be sure to thoroughly document the problems and give the worker plenty of opportunity to improve before resorting to discipline or termination.