On February 25, 2016, the California Court of Appeal held in Wallace v. County of Stanislaus, 245 Cal. App. 4th 109 (2016) that proof of an employer’s animus or ill will is not required in a disability discrimination action. Moreover, an employer’s mistaken belief that an employee cannot safely perform the essential functions of a job, even if the belief is reasonable and in good faith, does not preclude the employer’s liability.
Dennis Wallace worked as a deputy sheriff for the County of Stanislaus. After injuring his left knee and undergoing surgery, Wallace alternated periods of paid leave and light duty work. Eventually, Wallace exhausted the one year of paid leave to which he was entitled under Cal. Lab. Code §4850. Based on Wallace’s restrictions on running, climbing, and walking on uneven ground documented in a report by a qualified medical evaluator, the County offered Wallace a position as a bailiff for at least twelve months at his pre-injury rate of compensation.
Six months later, Wallace was examined by an orthopedic surgeon who specialized in workers’ compensation agreed medical exams. The surgeon issued a report listing various limitations on lifting, weight bearing, walking on uneven ground, climbing, squatting, pushing, and pulling, among other restrictions. The surgeon called these limitations “preclusions,” which he used to mean something that should be avoided 90 to 100 percent of the time.
The County subsequently removed Wallace from his position as bailiff, on the grounds that Wallace could not perform the job with the restrictions described in the report. The County did not ask Wallace’s supervisors if he was able to perform the duties of the job. Wallace stated at a meeting with representatives from the Sheriff’s Department that he could perform the functions of a bailiff, but the County nevertheless placed Wallace on an unpaid leave of absence and told him there was no assignment as deputy sheriff that could accommodate his work restrictions.
Wallace filed a complaint against the County and the Sheriff’s Department for disability discrimination, failure to accommodate his disability, failure to engage in the interactive process, and failure to prevent discrimination. At trial, the jury found that Wallace was able to perform the essential job duties of a deputy sheriff with or without reasonable accommodation. However, the jury found for the County on the issue of disability discrimination because the jury answered “no” to the question of whether the County regarded or treated Wallace “as having a physical disability in order to discriminate” (in other words, the jury found the County did not act with ill will or animus).
Wallace appealed. The Court of Appeal found that disability discrimination claims are fundamentally different from claims of discrimination based on race, age, sex, and other factors. One reason for this is that disability discrimination cases often involve direct evidence of the employer’s motivation for the adverse employment action, while in many other types of discrimination cases, there is only circumstantial evidence of the employer’s discriminatory motive.
The court also examined the meaning of the language “because of” as used in section 12940(a) of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, which makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee “because of” the employee’s physical disability. The court held that an employer treats an employee differently “because of” a disability if the disability is a “substantial motivating reason” for the employer’s decision to take an adverse employment action against the employee, even if the employer did not harbor any animosity or ill will against the employee or class of persons with that disability. The court further noted 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 of Appeal consequently held that the trial court’s jury instruction that Wallace was required to prove the County regarded or treated Wallace “as having a physical disability in order to discriminate” was erroneous. The Court of Appeal held that where an employee is found to be able to safely perform the essential duties of the job, a plaintiff claiming disability discrimination can establish employer intent to discriminate by proving “(1) the employer knew that plaintiff had a physical condition that limited a major life activity, or perceived him to have such a condition, and (2) the plaintiff’s actual or perceived physical condition was a substantial motivating reason for the defendant’s decision to subject the plaintiff to an adverse employment action.”
In this case, the court found as a matter of law that Wallace’s disability was a substantial motivating reason for the County’s decision to remove him from his job, as there was no dispute that the County’s motive for placing Wallace on a leave of absence was its mistaken belief that his physical condition created a safety issue. The Court of Appeal reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded for further proceedings on the issue of Wallace’s damages.
The Wallace decision should motivate employers to engage completely in the interactive process with an employee who has a perceived disability, rather than act based solely on restrictions described in a medical report.