California Deputy Wins Appeal Because Disability Discrimination Cases Don’t Require Proof of an Employer’s Ill Will

Night Court BailiffA recent California Court of Appeal case from Northern California reaffirms the difference between disability discrimination cases and other types of disability matters. In this 2016 decision, the court re-affirmed that, if an employee is alleging that his employer discriminated based upon his disability or perceived disability, he is not required to prove that the employer’s adverse actions were the result of an intent to discriminate.

The employee in the case, Dennis Wallace, was a sheriff’s deputy in Stanislaus County. Wallace, who had previously injured his left knee at work, received a 12-month assignment as a court bailiff in 2010. Six months into the assignment, in October 2010, a medical exam revealed that the deputy’s knee was seriously damaged, and the doctor placed Wallace on further restrictions. Despite Wallace’s claims that he could perform the duties of his job, the employer decided to place him on leave. The employer made its decision based upon the mistaken belief that the October 2010 medical report left it no choice but to place the deputy on leave. Wallace remained on unpaid leave for more than a year, when he passed a fitness-for-duty exam.

Wallace sued the county for disability discrimination in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act. The case went to trial, and the judge instructed the jury that, in order to enter a verdict in favor of Wallace, they had to find that the county acted with an intent to discriminate against him as a result of his disability. The jury, concluding that the employer did not have an intent to discriminate against the injured employee, returned a verdict in favor of the employer.

The deputy appealed this outcome, arguing that the judge did not instruct the jury correctly in his trial. The appeals court agreed. The key was the issue of discriminatory intent. The appeals court explained that the law did not require that Wallace prove that the employer had an ill motive in order to prevail. Under a 2013 Supreme Court decision, Harris v. City of Santa Monica, California law provides that illegal disability discrimination occurs if the employee’s disability was a substantial motivating factor in the employer’s adverse action. Within this legal framework, it does not matter whether the employer acted with ill will or malice, or acted under a good-faith mistaken belief. An intent to discriminate is not a requirement of determining that disability discrimination has occurred.

The Wallace decision also highlights the difference between circumstantial disability discrimination cases and disability discrimination cases with direct evidence. If the employee offers only circumstantial evidence of the employer’s motives, the case follows a three-part test in which the employee must present a facial case of discrimination, the employer must seek to establish a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its action, and the employee must prove that the employer’s stated reason was merely a pretext for the actual discriminatory motive. However, in cases in which the employee has direct evidence of the employer’s motivation and its relationship to his disability, this test does not apply.

Based on the evidence from the trial, the appeals court decided that Wallace had made his case for discrimination, and it sent the matter back to the trial court to determine the amount of damages he should receive.

If you believe your employer has discriminated against you because of a disability or a perceived disability, the law may allow you to recover damages for the harm you’ve suffered. The experienced Oakland employment discrimination attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch have helped many other victims of workplace discrimination and are ready and able to assist you. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Timing Proves Critical to Failure of Employer’s Defense in California Woman’s Pregnancy Discrimination Case, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Nov. 30, 2015

California Maintenance Worker with Bowel Disease Allowed to Sue for Disability Discrimination After Managed ‘Chilled’ Accommodation, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, April 15, 2015