Employer Loses Reasonable Accommodation Case

June 2, 2011  |  From HRCalifornia Extra

A Los Angeles police officer was injured on the job and placed on disability leave. The officer was allowed to return to work in a light-duty position, until the city learned that he was awarded a 100 percent disability rating by the workers’ compensation carrier. The city then terminated the officer, and the officer then filed a lawsuit alleging disability discrimination and failure to accommodate a disability under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). A jury awarded the former officer $1,571,500 and after appeals on several issues, the court of appeal reaffirmed the jury award.

Rory Cuiellette worked as an Investigator in the fugitive warrants unit before his injury. The city requested and received a release from Cuiellette’s doctor, which permitted him to do administrative work, or "light-duty" work. Cuiellette requested a desk job. However, when the city learned that Cuiellette was considered 100 percent disabled by the workers’ compensation carrier, the city sent him home and later terminated him. Cuiellette v. City of Los Angeles, 123 Cal. Rptr. 3d 562

Policy of Accommodating Officers

The city had a long-standing policy of accommodating officers who needed light-duty assignments. Disabled officers, including those with work-related injuries, were routinely placed on light-duty assignments, such as the desk job Cuiellette requested and was assigned as a reasonable accommodation. One detective stated that he witnessed hundreds of accommodations and that he personally arranged for at least 25 such assignments as a reasonable accommodation.

Overwhelming evidence proved that, at the time Cuiellette was disabled, the city had permanent light-duty positions available, specifically for officers who were disabled and wanted to continue working. Long after this case ended, the chief of police ended the light-duty assignments for disabled officers.

The court considered the fact that Cuiellette worked in Fugitive Warrants before his injury, and that he experienced no problems performing the light-duty, desk job when he returned to work in the same unit after the injury. In other words, he could perform all the essential functions of the position.

Though the city claimed that the positions were not labeled as permanent light duty, the court disregarded the city’s argument because testimony indicated that, despite the city’s claim that the positions weren’t offered as accommodations to injured employees, the positions were, in fact, used to reasonably accommodate injured officers who wished to return to work.

The fact that Cuiellette was 100 percent disabled under workers' compensation was not important — FEHA only requires that the employee be able to perform the essential functions of the job.

Work Performance

The city also claimed that medical evidence indicated that Cuiellette could not perform the light-duty assignment with or without reasonable accommodation. However, the city could not produce such evidence at trial. It was more likely that the decision was made to terminate Cuiellette because the workers' compensation administrator was concerned about employing someone who was 100 percent disabled, according to the city's workers' compensation carrier.

The city’s workers’ compensation administrator was aware of the restrictions placed on Cuiellette, such as no climbing or descending stairs, lifting heavy objects, walking, prolonged standing, heavy work and undue emotional distress. The court noted that if the city was concerned about the officer’s ability to perform the essential functions of the desk job, the city should have engaged in the interactive process and looked at making reasonable accommodations, if needed.

Sending Cuiellette home and then terminating him was not reasonable accommodation.

The trial court found the city did not meet its obligations under FEHA and noted that the city knew a lot about Ceillette’s disabilities, since the workers’ compensation claim had been in litigation for years. Once the city brought Cuiellette back, with the knowledge of his disability, the city had an obligation to consider reasonable accommodation of Cuiellette’s disability. The city could not provide any evidence of its attempt to engage in the interactive process and reasonable accommodation discussion.

The police department had a long history of providing permanent, light-duty jobs for officers who could no longer perform their regular duties. For Cuiellette, the issue was whether he could perform the essential functions of the light-duty job, not whether he could perform the duties of the job he held at the time of his injury.

The $1,571,500 verdict was upheld.

Best Practices

  • Engage in the interactive process with any employee or applicant who may need reasonable accommodation. This includes employees returning from a leave of absence for their own illness or injury, whether work-related or not.
  • Be sure to provide a current, written job description to the employee for his/her health care provider to use in determining the employee’s ability to return to work and/or need for reasonable accommodation.
  • Consult with legal counsel before communicating with employees who express the need for reasonable accommodation of any kind (leave of absence, light duty position, modifications to the workplace, etc.).