In Cuiellette v. City of Los Angeles, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —-, Cal.App. 2 Dist., April 22, 2011), a court of appeal considered whether a police department could be held liable for discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) for terminating the employment of a police officer it had assigned to a light duty position after he returned to work following a determination that he was 100% disabled in a workers’ compensation proceeding. The court of appeal held the police department was liable for a FEHA violation because it failed to show the officer could not perform the essential functions of the light duty position in which the department had placed the officer when he returned to work.
Rory Cuiellette (“Cuiellette”) was injured and placed on disability leave while he was employed by the City of Los Angeles (“City”) as a peace office. Cuiellette’s workers’ compensation claim resulted in a finding of 100% disability. Cuiellette later asked City if he could return to work in the fugitive warrants unit. The detective Cuiellette contacted to inquire about returning to work asked Cuiellette to provide a doctor’s note. Cuiellette’s treating physician sent City a note stating Cuiellette could perform “permanent light duty—administrative work only.” The doctor did not specify in the note that Cuiellette had any particular restrictions on his activities.
Cuiellette reported to work on May 27, 2003, and City assigned him to a purely administrative assignment at the “courts” or “renditions” desk in the fugitive warrants unit. No field work was required in this position except for occasionally driving to a courthouse to deliver papers. However, on June 3, 2003, Cuiellette’s supervisor informed him that he could no longer work for City because he was 100% disabled.
At the time City allowed Cuiellette to return to work, City “had a longstanding policy and practice of allowing sworn officers to perform ‘light duty’ assignments that did not entail several essential functions of a peace officer such as making arrests, taking suspects into custody, and driving a police vehicle in emergency situations.” A lieutenant in charge of the medical liaison unit stated that “his marching orders were to accommodate disabled police officers by providing them with ‘light duty assignments” and that he had accommodated hundreds of disabled officers by providing them with such assignments. The detective who assisted Cuiellette in obtaining his position stated the he had helped as many as 25 disabled officers who contacted him to obtain work in the fugitive warrants unit. The detective stated “that although a civilian could be trained to perform the duties on the rendition or court desk, the City routinely placed sworn officers in these positions. The light duty policy remained in effect long after Cuiellette’s employment was terminated.
Cuiellette brought a lawsuit against City claiming discrimination and failure to accommodate his disability in violation of FEHA. A jury found in favor of Cuiellette and awarded him $1,571,500 in damages.
The court of appeal affirmed the judgment. The court rejected City’s argument that substantial evidence did not support the judgment because the evidence showed Cuiellette “was unable to perform the essential duties of a police officer with or without reasonable accommodation.” The court found that even if Cuiellette could not perform the essential duties “of a police officer, he could perform the essential functions of a position into which he had been placed by the [Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”)] as a reasonable accommodation in accordance with then existing practice.”
The FEHA provides “it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of the employee’s physical disability.” However, this prohibition does not apply where an employee “is unable to perform his or her essential duties even with reasonable accommodations, or cannot perform those duties in a manner that would not endanger his or her health or safety or the health or safety of others even with reasonable accommodations.” In order to establish a claim for employment discrimination pursuant to FEHA, the employee must show that “he or she was able to do the job, with or without reasonable accommodation.”
A reasonable accommodation under FEHA is “a modification or adjustment to the workplace that enables the employee to perform the essential functions of the job held or desired.” If the employee cannot be accommodated into his or her existing position and the employee requests reassignment as an accommodation, “an employer must make affirmative efforts to determine whether a position is available.” An employer can be relieved of its duty to reassign “only if reassignment would impose an ‘undue hardship’ on its operations or if there is no vacant position for which the employee is qualified.”
The LAPD had a longstanding policy and practice to provide “a significant number of permanent, light duty assignments in which it placed police officers who, because of medical restrictions, could not perform all of the essential duties of a police officer.” The evidence revealed that of the 8,500 sworn police officers employed by the LAPD, approximately 3,000 worked with medical restrictions including 250 who worked in “permanent light duty positions that would not allow them to work the field.” Because of this policy, the court determined the relevant inquiry is whether Cuiellette “was able to perform the essential duties of the light duty assignment he was given on his return to work and not whether he was able to perform all of the essential duties of a police officer in general.” The proper focus is on the “the essential functions of the court desk position, the position [Cuiellette] sought, and not on the essential functions of the police officer position, the job title [Cuiellette] held.”
The court of appeal held that there is substantial evidence to support the judgment that City “violated the FEHA when, in light of existing policies, it sent [Cuiellette] home from work based on the 100 percent total permanent disability rating [he] received in the workers’ compensation proceeding . . . and when it failed reasonably to accommodate [Cuiellette] upon sending him home from work.” Cuiellette was required to show he could perform the essential duties of the desk position and he met this burden. The court found that City’s removal of Cuiellette from his desk position based on the 100 percent disability rating from the workers’ compensation proceeding violated the accommodations provisions of FEHA.
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