Worker Erroneously Classified as Totally Disabled Can Proceed with Bias Claim


By Joanne Deschenaux January 15, 2020
Worker Erroneously Classified as Totally Disabled Can Proceed with Bias Claim

An employee who was discharged because a benefits coordinator mistakenly believed he was totally disabled and unable to work could proceed with his claim of disability discrimination, a California appeals court ruled. The coordinator incorrectly thought the employee had transitioned from short-term disability to long-term disability (LTD), which would have merited termination under company policy.

Even if the mistake was reasonable and made in good faith, the company may have violated the Fair Employment and Housing Act, California's anti-bias law, in terminating the employee, the court said.

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

The plaintiff worked for a pharmaceutical company as a sales representative, driving to doctors' offices to promote the company's products. In January 2016, the company approved his request for a medical leave of absence for a serious eye condition. The plaintiff's doctor provided a medical certification designating the plaintiff's work status as "no work" because, the doctor determined, the plaintiff was unable to safely drive.

The company's reasonable-accommodation policy lists "reassignment to a vacant position" as a potential accommodation. While on medical leave, the plaintiff repeatedly asked for help getting a new job within the company that did not require driving, and he applied for several open positions, but the company never reassigned him.

On July 20, 2016, a benefits coordinator sent a letter to the plaintiff informing him that his employment was being terminated, effective that day. The reason given for the termination was that the company had received notification that the plaintiff had been approved for LTD, effective July 20, 2016. According to the company's policy, the letter said, the plaintiff would no longer be eligible to remain on inactive status and must be discharged.

The benefits coordinator mistakenly believed that the plaintiff's termination was required under the company's policy. The company's actual policy, however, is that termination is required once the employee has applied and been approved for LTD benefits, not once the date the employee becomes eligible for LTD benefits has passed, as the staffer believed.

At no point did the plaintiff apply for LTD, and it is undisputed that he could have returned to work with a reasonable accommodation. The day after his termination, the plaintiff e-mailed a letter to the company's HR department, including its director, stating he never applied for LTD and could work in any position that did not require driving, and protesting the mistaken decision to terminate him.

The plaintiff was not reinstated, so he sued the company alleging disability discrimination, among other claims.

Nine months after the plaintiff informed the company he was not on LTD and was ready and willing to work in a suitable position, and after he filed suit, the company's head of HR sent the plaintiff a letter stating her belief that the plaintiff's termination had been a mistake and offering to reinstate him. The plaintiff, however, rejected the offer because it did not identify a specific position being offered or the compensation. He believed that the company would continue to mistreat him and fail to place him in an open position.

The company moved to have the plaintiff's disability-bias claim dismissed before trial, and the trial court granted the motion. The appellate court reversed, ruling that the claim could go forward.

Direct Evidence of Discrimination

The appeals court first noted that the plaintiff had direct evidence of disability discrimination: The employer knew that the plaintiff had a physical condition that limited a major life activity, and the plaintiff's physical condition was a substantial motivating reason for the employer's decision to terminate the plaintiff.

California law does not require an employee with a disability to prove that the employer's adverse employment action was motivated by animosity or ill will against the employee, the court stated. Instead, California law protects employees from an employer's erroneous or mistaken beliefs about an employee's physical condition.

The legislature "decided that the financial consequences of an employer's mistaken belief that an employee is unable to safely perform a job's essential functions should be borne by the employer, not the employee, even if the employer's mistake was reasonable and made in good faith," the court said.

In this case, neither party claimed that the plaintiff could reasonably be categorized as totally disabled and unable to perform any job at the company with or without reasonable accommodation, but that was how he was classified. And even if the mistaken categorization was reasonable and made in good faith, that did not preclude liability for disability discrimination, the court concluded.

Glynn v. Superior Court, Calif. Ct. App., No. B296735 (Nov. 13, 2019).

Professional Pointer: Once the lawsuit in this case was filed, HR tried to minimize the damage that had been done by a temporary employee's good-faith mistake. Perhaps the lawsuit could have been avoided entirely if HR had acted earlier and responded to the plaintiff's letter protesting his termination.

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


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs

Earn a SHRM Talent Acquisition Specialty Credential.

Do you have what it takes to win the war for talent? Find out.

Do you have what it takes to win the war for talent? Find out.



Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect

HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.