Appeals Court Upholds FEHA Liability Judgment in Favor of LAPD Academy Recruits

LA Police DepartmentThe Fair Employment and Housing Act requires employers to take certain steps to reasonably accommodate employees with disabilities. In some cases, one such possible accommodation is job reassignment. The law does not require employers to offer reassignment as an accommodation to job applicants. So how does the law classify certain employees at the very beginning of their employment, such as police academy recruits? According to a recent California Court of Appeal decision, probationary and trainee employees are akin to at-will employees who, unlike job applicants, are entitled to reassignment when it is a reasonable accommodation for their disabilities.

For a period of time, the Los Angeles Police Department had a practice of taking police academy recruits who were temporarily injured during their academy training and placing them in light-duty administrative roles until the recruit recovered or qualified as permanently disabled.

The department eventually decided to end this practice. When they did, the department took the injured recruits who were still working light-duty jobs and asked them to obtain immediate medical clearance, resign, or be fired. When none of the five recruits affected by this new policy could obtain the necessary clearance, the department either terminated or constructively discharged them.

The recruits sued and won. The recruits argued that the department’s decision to end their employment when they couldn’t get immediate medical clearance constituted disability discrimination in violation of the FEHA. The employer discriminated against the recruits based upon their disabilities, failed to reasonably accommodate them, and failed to engage in the sort of interactive process that the FEHA requires, according to the jury.

The employer appealed, but the appeals court upheld the finding of liability. The appeals court concluded that the employer failed to make reasonable accommodations for these employees’ disabilities. The appeals court rejected the employer’s argument that the recruits were “pre-probationary trainees” who were not legally entitled to receive accommodations in the form of job reassignment. Under the FEHA’s requirements, employers are required to offer reassignment as a reasonable accommodation to employees but not to job applicants. As the court explained in its opinion, job applicants “are not entitled to reassignment because, unlike employees, they have never performed the essential functions of the original position and therefore are not initially qualified individuals under FEHA.”

Trainees and probationary employees are still employees under FEHA

The city’s position essentially argued for a ruling that would treat police academy recruits who had never completed their academy training and who had never completed probationary field assignments as the equivalent of job applicants. The court rejected this equivalency, concluding that the FEHA did not create such a differentiation between probationary/trainee employees and other employees. Rather than being the equivalent of job applicants, the court determined that trainee and probationary employees’ positions regarding their rights under FEHA were more similar to at-will employees. An at-will employee can be fired with or without cause, but an employer must still, to be compliant with the FEHA, offer reassignment to an at-will employee with a disability when a reassignment would be reasonable.

Whether an employee was “pre-probationary,” probationary, or in initial training, that employee was still an employee, rather than an applicant, and entitled to reassignment when a reassignment was reasonable.

When you’ve been terminated unfairly due to your disability, you may have a cause of action under the FEHA to recover compensation for the harm you suffered. The experienced Oakland employment attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch have been helping employees with disabilities defend their rights for many years. For more information regarding how this office can help you, contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Workplace Absences and How They Can Influence Your California Disability Discrimination Case, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Dec. 15, 2016

Appeals Court Revives Wrongful Termination Case Brought by California Worker Fired After Suffering Workplace Injury, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Feb. 15, 2016