Employer Unaware of Worker’s Disability Defeats Bias Claim

 

June 11, 2019
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A worker who told his supervisor that he was in pain and going to the doctor didn't do enough to inform the employer of his disability, so the worker's bias claim couldn't proceed, a California appeals court ruled.

Vague statements about an unspecified ailment are not enough to notify an employer of its obligations under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the court said.

In October 2012, the employee began working for a telemarketing company that sells aftermarket automobile warranties. His job required repetitive motion using a mouse, keyboard and telephone.

At some point in 2014, the employee began experiencing pain in his arm, wrist and hand. He believed the pain was related to his work because it increased while he was in the office and diminished when he was home. The employee complained numerous times to his supervisor about the pain, which continued to worsen. Eventually, the employee lost some range of motion in his fingers and worried he might have permanent nerve damage.

In April 2015, the employee told his supervisor he "was experiencing discomfort and pain" and "was going to make an appointment for the doctor." He did not describe his symptoms to his supervisor in any detail.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Employees' Disabilities]

Although he was denied leave for his appointment, he went anyway. Upon returning to work, he showed the supervisor a doctor's note saying he had an unspecified injury and needed an ergonomic keyboard and mouse. The note did not include a diagnosis or prognosis, nor did it say the employee couldn't work or could only work under certain conditions.

The employee was fired that same day for performance-related reasons, including a number of unexcused absences. On July 10, 2015, the employee filed a complaint against the employer alleging disability discrimination in violation of FEHA, among other claims. The employer moved for summary judgment, asking that the lawsuit be dismissed before trial, and the court granted the motion. The employee appealed.

No Proof of Discriminatory Intent

FEHA prohibits an employer from firing a worker because of his or her physical disability. Discriminatory intent is a necessary element of a FEHA discrimination claim.

The employer did not challenge the employee's evidence that he had a disability, that he was generally qualified for his position or that he suffered an adverse employment action. However, the employer argued that the worker could not prove that his disability was a substantial motivating factor for his discharge because the undisputed evidence showed that those who fired him were unaware of his disability.

The appellate court noted that, under California law, an employer knows an employee has a disability when the employee tells the employer about his or her condition or when the employer otherwise becomes aware of the condition, such as through a third party or by observation.

While knowledge of the disability can be inferred from the circumstances, the court said, knowledge will only be imputed to the employer when the fact of disability "is the only reasonable interpretation of the known facts."

The appellate court concluded that the employee failed to show that he had adequately notified his supervisor that he had a FEHA-qualifying disability. When he first asked for time off for his doctor's appointment, he told his supervisor only that the appointment was because of pain in his arm. That was not enough to put the supervisor on notice that the employee had a physical disability, the court said.

Similarly, the doctor's note did not contain a diagnosis or prognosis, the court said. The employee's supervisor could have reasonably interpreted that the need for ergonomic equipment was because of a temporary injury, was to prevent injury or was simply what a doctor recommended.

The court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the complaint.

Sammartine v. NCWC Dealer Services, Calif. Ct. App., No. B285797 (May 20, 2019).

Professional Pointer: To prove unlawful disability discrimination, an employee must show that he or she suffered an adverse employment action because of his or her disability. In most cases, that means that the employer must know about the employee's disability.

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

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