24 May 2011
In California, it is unlawful for an employer to terminate you because you suffer from a disability. What happens when you have been injured and attempt to return to work? Many employers offer light duty assignments to employees who are temporarily unable to perform the essential duties of their positions, some do not. While there is no hard and fast rule that an employer must offer permanent light duty, a recent decision gives hope to those who seek to remain productive members of the workforce following an injury.
In Cuiellette v. City of Los Angeles, a California court found an employer liable for disability discrimination because it failed to provide an employee with a 100% disability rating a permanent light duty assignment. It is significant to note that the employer had available (and permanent) light duty positions and routinely made use of those positions to accommodate injured employees. The employer argued that it had never provided a permanent light duty position to an employee with a workers’ compensation rating of 100%. The court dismissed the employer’s argument, reasoning that a workers’ compensation disability rating does not absolve the employer of the obligation to engage in the interactive process and determine whether the employee can perform the essential functions of an open alternative position. The employer’s decision to
rely on the workers’ compensation disability rating (and the advice of a third party workers’ compensation administrator to terminate the employee) was wrong and supported a finding for violation of the law.
The Cuiellette decision makes clear that the legal parameters of Workers’ Compensation and the Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA. Your legal rights under those two systems are different and your employer’s legal obligations are not the same, nor do they always coincide. If you have been injured and are returning to work with restrictions, you owe it to yourself to be aware of your legal rights. Fighting disability discrimination is a passion of our law firm. We are here to help.
If you are an employer faced with the decision of accommodating a disabled employee, you should focus on the employee’s actual restrictions in relation to the essential functions of the employee’s existing position and/or open alternative positions. If you have a number of facilities or locations, the required decision-making process may
dictate that you look outside the original facility where the employee worked before making an offer of accommodation or denying accommodation. The process of returning a previously injured employee to work is a complicated one that presents traps for the unwary. Give us a call if you have any questions.