School District to Pay $550,000 for Fired Custodian’s Disability Claims

By Joanne Deschenaux October 24, 2017
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School District to Pay $550,000 for Fired Custodian’s Disability Claims

A school district violated the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) by firing a custodian who could not climb a ladder to change a lightbulb due to an injury, the California Court of Appeal ruled, affirming a jury verdict of $550,000 for the worker. The jury had found that the custodian had a disability, that climbing a ladder was not an essential function of his job and that the school district could have accommodated him by having someone else help him change lightbulbs.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What is FEHA and what does it cover?]

Background

Joseph Snead worked as a night custodian at an elementary school within the Chino Valley Unified School District. In January 2010, Snead injured his back while moving a classroom bookcase. Snead's attending physician wrote a note establishing work restrictions. The doctor indicated that Snead could not climb a ladder, bend his neck, twist his neck or work at heights.

Snead met with the district's human resources director and the district's disability coordinator. They concluded that a custodian needs to use a ladder, especially to change lightbulbs, and insisted that ladders were frequently used even though the written job description did not refer to ladder use.

Snead responded that using a ladder was not an essential function of his job. Primarily he vacuumed, emptied trash cans, and cleaned the classrooms and restrooms—and he could use extension poles to clean higher windows or other areas. He needed to use a ladder about once a month to change lightbulbs.

The district did not propose any accommodations. Snead, however, suggested trading some duties with the day custodian, who could handle tasks requiring ladder use. Snead also proposed that any ladder-related duties could be reserved for school breaks when custodians worked as a team.

The district concluded that other custodians would not be able to undertake Snead's lightbulb-changing duties and that Snead's inability to use a ladder conflicted with the essential functions of the custodian position. The district ultimately rejected Snead's proposed accommodations as causing an "undue burden."

On April 6, 2010, the district terminated Snead's employment based on its assessment that a ladder restriction could not be accommodated. Snead sued the school district, alleging three causes of action: disability discrimination, failure to accommodate and failure to engage in a good-faith interactive process.

The jury reached a verdict in Snead's favor on all three causes of action. The jury found that ladder use was not an essential function of Snead's job and that the district could have reasonably accommodated Snead's restriction. The jury awarded $217,000 in past lost earnings, $217,000 in past noneconomic loss and $116,000 in future noneconomic loss. The district appealed.

Essential Functions

Under FEHA, the essential functions of a position are "the fundamental job duties of the employment position the individual with a disability holds or desires."

FEHA lists the reasons and evidence that may be considered in determining the essential functions of a job. This includes, but is not limited to the following:

  • Whether the position exists to perform the job function.
  • Whether a limited number of employees are available to perform the job function.
  • Whether the function is highly specialized.
  • Written job descriptions.
  • The amount of time spent performing the function.
  • The consequences of not requiring the incumbent to perform the function.
  • The work experiences of past and current incumbents in the job or similar jobs.

The appellate court noted that the main issue the jury considered was whether using a ladder to change lightbulbs was an essential job function and concluded that the evidence overwhelmingly showed it was not.

Snead and another custodian both testified that they rarely used a ladder to perform job duties; when they did, it was typically to replace lightbulbs in the classrooms. In addition, they both testified that the current procedure was to change lightbulbs in pairs or teams, with one custodian remaining at ground level.

The district's witnesses admitted that custodians were not hired for the sole purpose of changing lightbulbs, that changing lightbulbs was not considered a "highly specialized" skill, and that ladder use and changing lightbulbs were not identified as "essential functions" in the district's own written job description.

The court concluded that the jury correctly found that Snead would have been able to perform the actual essential functions of his job without using a ladder and upheld the verdict in Snead's favor.

Snead v. Chino Valley Unified School Dist., Calif. Ct. App., No. E064886 (Oct. 6, 2017).

Professional Pointer: Because the determination of whether an employee is qualified for a position depends on the essential functions of the job, employers should ensure that a written job description defines which job duties are essential functions.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer based in Annapolis, Md.

 

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