California Employee Allowed to Continue Disability Discrimination Case Despite Failure to Obtain Doctor’s Note About Limitations

A recent federal court ruling in a disability discrimination case filed under the Fair Employment and Housing Act can offer important knowledge to employers regarding the interactive process when it comes to employees with disabilities. In this ruling, the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California refused to award a summary judgment to an employer, even though the employee did not satisfy the employer’s request for a doctor’s note. The information the employer already had on hand, even without the requested note, was enough to put it on notice that the employee had certain disabilities and therefore placed the employer under the obligation to engage in an interactive process.

In this case, Jan Thomsen had been a worker in Georgia-Pacific Corrugated, LLC’s Madera, California plant for 11 years when he injured his shoulder on the job in 2012. The injury left Thomsen unable to lift more than 30 pounds. Thomsen’s job as a cut and die operator required lifting heavy loads, so the employer transferred Thomsen to a different job, which the employee agreed would satisfy his work restrictions. Two weeks into his new position, though, the employee made a subsequent complaint to his employer. His new position still required him to lift more than 30 pounds, he contended. He also informed the employer that the long hours and the frequent use of an overhead lever caused him pain in his injured shoulder.

The employer demanded that Thomsen go back to his doctor, have the doctor determine if he required additional restrictions, and, if he did, submit a note to that effect. Thomsen never went to his physician and never brought such a note to his employer. Thomsen continued to complain of shoulder pain, but his supervisors told him he’d been “cleared for” work. Eventually, on Feb. 19, 2014, Thomsen left the plant after refusing to work overtime hours that he had been ordered to do. Two weeks later, the employer fired him.

Thomsen launched a FEHA lawsuit, contending that the employer committed disability discrimination. The employer’s treatment had two problems, according to the employee. The employer failed to accommodate him sufficiently, and the employer failed to engage properly in the interactive process. The employer responded by asking the court for summary judgment in its favor. The employer pointed out that, after Thomsen’s follow-up complaint, it had demanded that the employee provide additional information for the employer to use in making an accommodation decision. Thomsen never did this, so the employer couldn’t possibly be liable for failing to accommodate or for failing to engage in the interactive process.

The court, however, was not persuaded by the employer’s argument and allowed Thomsen’s case to proceed. Georgia-Pacific’s main problem in this case was the existing restriction. Even if Thomsen required a second doctor’s note in order to be entitled to an interactive process and an accommodation regarding the long hours and the use of the overhead lever, the employee had already submitted the appropriate documentation about his lifting restriction, and Georgia-Pacific was already on notice of that limitation. Even without the second notice, the employer had knowledge of that disability and an ongoing obligation to engage in the interactive process regarding whether the duties of his current position could be modified to allow Thomsen to avoid lifting overweight amounts.

While the employer had provided Thomsen with an initial accommodation and met Thomsen’s follow-up complaint with a (fairly typical) request for more documentation, it still lost this summary judgment motion. It lost because Thomsen had already documented the 30-pound restriction, and the employer should have engaged in additional interaction on that issue, at a minimum, regardless of whether Thomsen went back to his doctor or not.

The FEHA contains several clear obligations for employers when it comes to avoiding illegal disability discrimination. If you think that you’ve been denied fair treatment from your employer when it comes to your disability, talk to the experienced Oakland employment attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. We have helped many employees with their FEHA cases and are here to help you too. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

California Deputy Wins Appeal Because Disability Discrimination Cases Don’t Require Proof of an Employer’s Ill Will, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, May 31, 2016

Supervisors, Stress, and Your California Disability Discrimination Case, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, June 30, 2015

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