Employers often rely on medical information and disability determinations made in workers' compensation matters to decide whether to return employees back to work, even though such determinations are made without regard to disability discrimination laws. However, it is now clear that employers do so at their own peril. In Cuiellette v. City of Los Angeles, the Second Appellate District Court affirmed a $1,571,500 judgment for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate disability in favor of the employee. In affirming the judgment, the court determined that the proper inquiry is whether an employee's medical restrictions prevented the individual from performing the functions of the position held or the desired position to be held.
Factual Background of the Case
Rory Cuiellette was a peace officer (a field position) for the City of Los Angeles. Cuiellette was injured on the job and placed on disability leave. He pursued a workers' compensation claim, which resolved in a finding of 100% disability. Thereafter, Cuiellette provided the city with a doctor's note authorizing him to perform "permanent light duty—administrative work." In response, the city accepted Cuiellette's return to work and assigned him to a court desk position, a purely administrative assignment requiring no field work. However, just five days later, the city sent him home because of the 100% disabled rating.
At trial, Cuiellette presented evidence that the city had a longstanding policy and practice of allowing officers to perform light duty assignments that did not require performance of several essential functions of a peace officer; the city had reassigned many disabled officers to purely administrative assignments; the city maintained permanent light duty vacancies specifically to accommodate disabled officers who wanted to continue to work; Cuiellette could perform, and did perform, the essential functions of the court desk position without a problem; and only sworn officers worked the court desk position.
The evidence showed that the city made the decision to remove Cuiellette from duty based on the concern of a third-party workers' compensation claims administrator, Cambridge Associates, that the city could not place someone in the workplace who was 100% disabled. Thus the city never engaged in the analysis required under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). The city unsuccessfully argued that 100% disabled meant incapable of performing the essential functions of any position, which thus could not be accommodated.
Here, the trial court found (and the appellate court affirmed) that Cuiellette only needed to prove that he could perform the essential functions of the position to which he sought reassignment—the court desk position, not the peace officer position. The court affirmed the judgment of more than $1.5 million because (1) Cuiellette was qualified to perform the essential functions of the court desk position, (2) he was placed in the position pursuant to the city's accommodation policy, and (3) removing Cuiellette from the position based on the workers' compensation rating violated the duty to accommodate imposed by the FEHA. Finally, there was no showing or claim by the city that assigning Cuiellette to the court desk position presented an undue or unreasonable hardship.
Cambridge Associates' decision and the city's deference to it underscore the differing standards and results stemming from the workers' compensation law, the FEHA and the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA). This case makes clear that the duties to return an employee to work under workers' compensation law and the ADAAA/FEHA are distinct. Therefore, an employer cannot rely on restrictions stemming from a workers' compensation proceeding without engaging in the interactive process required under the FEHA. The failure to do so could be costly.
© 2011 Perkins Coie LLP