Employer Wins Reasonable Accommodation Case

May 5, 2011

The Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) sued Lucent Technology, claiming that Lucent failed to provide reasonable accommodation for a former employee disabled as a result of a work-related injury. Though the case was dismissed for judicial reasons, it is a great review of what an employer should do in terms of providing reasonable accommodation.

Steven Carauddo worked for Lucent as a telecommunications installer for many years. The job was physically demanding and required that employees be able to lift and maneuver items weighing as much as 50 pounds.

After injuring his back at work, Carauddo took a leave of absence for his disability. In accordance with company policy, he requested and received disability benefits.

During the disability leave, Lucent received conflicting information about Carauddo's ability to return to work and perform physical tasks. Carauddo's disability leave expired, and the company terminated his employment. Carauddo filed a complaint with the DFEH, and the agency sued Lucent on Carauddo's behalf. – Department of Fair Employment and Housing v. Lucent Technologies, Inc., 2011 WL 1549232

Lucent's paid disability plan required that a member of its medical department communicate with employees on disability throughout their time off from work. Employees who did not return to work in 52 weeks were terminated, unless they applied for unpaid disability leave and their prognosis was a full recovery within six months.

Medical Updates

Carauddo saw more than one health care provider during his disability leave, and the providers gave differing opinions on the limits to the weight that Carauddo could lift. Lucent's medical department regularly contacted the operations manager, who supervised the installers, to determine if other positions existed that would meet the restrictions given by Carauddo's doctors. Lucent also was in regular contact with Carauddo and his health care providers, and the company frequently asked for clarification of Carauddo’s work restrictions.

Although the restrictions varied as to the amount of weight Carauddo could lift, none of the health care providers indicated that Carauddo was able to return to his job as an installer. These medical updates indicated to the company that Carauddo could not meet the physical requirements of the job, because he was not able to climb or lift the heavy tools and equipment used in the installer position.

After one year of disability leave, Lucent received more conflicting information about Carauddo's ability to return to work and perform physical tasks so the company decided it could not reinstate him to his former installer position. At this point Carauddo's disability leave expired and he was terminated. Shortly afterward, Carauddo underwent another physical exam, and the results showed that he could lift up to 45 pounds. But Carauddo’s regular health care provider sent Lucent updated medical information stating that Carauddo could not lift the weight required by his job.

Fourteen months after the original disability leave started, Carauddo was released with no work restrictions, and with a statement from his health care provider that Carauddo could lift up to 50 pounds.

DFEH Complaint

After the termination, Carauddo filed a complaint with the DFEH, and the agency sued Lucent on Carauddo's behalf. DFEH claimed that Lucent violated the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) by terminating Carauddo. Lucent sought to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the company communicated frequently with Carauddo during his disability, that it provided reasonable accommodation and that it acted on legitimate reasons when it decided to terminate Carauddo's employment.

The lower court concluded that Lucent provided reasonable accommodation in the form of disability leave and sufficiently engaged in the interactive process. At no time did Carauddo mention any reasonable accommodation or present other ideas about accommodation that Lucent had not already considered. The installer position required frequent lifting and because Carauddo's medical restrictions prohibited him from lifting the weight required for the job, he was not able to perform the essential functions of his job and could not be considered a qualified individual with a disability.

The court did not agree with Carauddo's claim that Lucent unlawfully failed to provide the additional six months of leave. Lucent sent Carauddo a reminder about the one year limit on paid disability leave three months before the expiration of his leave. The reminder also included information on Lucent's long-term-disability plan, and the six-month unpaid leave extension if the doctor anticipated the employee being able to return to work in six months.

The 9th Circuit agreed with the trial court and the case was dismissed.

Best Practices

  • Communicate on a regular basis with employees on a disability-related leave.
  • Provide the employee with a written job description, including physical requirements. The employee should be instructed to give the job description to his/her health care provider so the health care professional can make an informed decision as to the employee's ability to return to work, and/or the need for reasonable accommodation.
  • Beware of capping the time an employee can be on a disability-related leave before being terminated. Prior cases have found employers liable if they implement such a policy and do not consider the circumstances of each situation.
  • Consult legal counsel before terminating an employee on a disability-related leave, whether the leave is work-related or not.
  • Engage in the "interactive process" to determine if reasonable accommodation is feasible.