Concerning a disability accommodation case, a federal district court in California held that an employer might have violated its obligations under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) when it simply told an employee to return to his doctor to obtain a note outlining additional work restrictions. The Court held that a reasonable jury could find that the employer was obligated to do more than tell the plaintiff (employee) to go back to his physician and get a new doctor's note, especially because evidence suggested it would have been possible to respond to some of the employee's concerns without a new doctor's note.
Disability Accommodation Case
In Thomsen v. Georgia-Pacific Corrugated, LLC, the plaintiff worked as a cut-and-die operator at a corrugated container plant. In May 2012, the plaintiff injured his shoulder at work, went on workers' compensation leave, and returned to work eight months later after undergoing surgery on his left shoulder. He returned to work after shoulder surgery with a 30-pound lifting restriction. Because that restriction meant he could not perform the essential functions of his job as a cut and die operator, the company engaged in interactive process discussions and transferred him to an assistant end-gluer position as an accommodation.
After a short time in the end-gluer role however, the plaintiff began to complain that the accommodated position also required him to lift more than 30 pounds, and further, that operating an overhead lever and working overtime hours caused him to experience pain in his shoulder. When he sought additional accommodations, the company asked him to provide an additional doctor's note. The employee never obtained any doctor's clarifications regarding additional restrictions. The employer did not present evidence that anyone from Human Resources followed up with the employee about the new doctor's note to verify further work restrictions.
In March 2014, the plaintiff refused to work an overtime shift, and the Company terminated his employment on that basis. The plaintiff sued alleging, among other things, disability discrimination in violation of California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The suit also alleged that the employer failed to provide reasonable accommodation and engage in the interactive process, each an independent violation of FEHA under California law. (Note: The Federal Americans with Disabilities Act does not provide a standalone cause of action for failing to engage in the interactive process.)
Federal District Court Denies Summary Judgment to the Company
The federal district court in California rejected the employer's argument that because the employee failed to obtain an additional doctor's note, his claims for failure to accommodate and failure to engage in interactive process should fail.
- First, according to the Court, it was not clear that the assistant end-gluer position met all of the employee's work restrictions. In other words, the employee engaging in occasional lifting beyond 30 pounds appears to violate the employee's existing doctor's note.
- Second, the Court felt that the Company should have had a conversation with the employee in response to his concerns about the overhead lever and overtime hours, before concluding that he had to return to his doctor.
- Third, although the plaintiff was fired for allegedly “abandoning his shift,” he presented evidence suggesting that the punishment against him was more severe than called for by the Company's written attendance policy.
For these reasons, the Court knocked down the company's central argument that it should prevail on summary judgment and refused to dismiss the plaintiff's claims prior to trial.
California Employment Law | Disability Accommodation
Per California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), an employer should work with an employee to find a reasonable accommodation that allows him or her to perform the essential functions of the job. In most cases, this will require the employee to secure a doctor's note; in some others though, it may not, and thus, employers should not automatically require one once an accommodation request is made. Should you have questions about FEHA or providing accommodations for a disability, don't hesitate to contact leading California employment lawyers at Kingsley & Kingsley. Call and speak to an experienced California lawyer toll-free at (888) 500-8469 or click here to contact us via email.