California Employers Not Required to Eliminate Essential Job Duties to Accommodate Employees With Disabilities

As an employer, understanding exactly what the Fair Employment and Housing Act requires of you when faced with an employee with a disability is extremely important. Failing to go far enough in reasonably accommodating an employee can risk triggering potentially expensive and time-consuming litigation. Two recent California Court of Appeal cases, published within five days of each other, help give some instruction regarding the reasonable accommodation of employees with restrictions. Of the things the law requires employers to do in making reasonable accommodations, both cases make clear that ignoring or dropping essential functions of a job is not among them.

The first of this pair of cases came from Imperial County, where Joseph Garcia worked for the state Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation as a painter. Five years into the job, Garcia developed head and neck pains, along with vertigo. His doctor advised that he remain at ground level and avoid climbing ladders, roofs, and scaffolding. The department eventually demoted him from painter to laboratory assistant. When Garcia did not show up for his new assignment, the state terminated him.

In the second case, Tony Nealy worked as a solid waste equipment operator for the City of Santa Monica when he hurt his knee on the job. The city moved him into a groundskeeper position, where he injured his back. After this injury, Nealy never returned to work. The city held several accommodations meetings with the employee, but it was unable to find a job that the employee could perform given his physical limitations and for which he was otherwise qualified.

Both employees ultimately sued their employers for alleged violations of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, and both employees lost. In each case, the court decided that the employers were in compliance, given that they engaged in one or more interactive processes and that the only way to accommodate the employee would be to overlook essential duties of the employees’ jobs. In Garcia’s case, the state offered evidence that working at heights was an essential element of a painter’s job and that the department’s official statement of the painter job expressly mentioned using mechanical lifts, ladders, and scaffolding, in addition to working on second-story roofs.

In Nealy’s case, his job contained multiple essential duties he could not perform. Operating the equipment involved heavy lifting and also required operators to perform inspections on the equipment, which required operators to bend over or get on their hands and knees. With his knee and back injuries, Nealy could neither do the lifting nor perform the inspections. Asking the city to eliminate the heavy lifting requirement was not a reasonable accommodation, the court ruled.

Employers are not required under the FEHA to eliminate essential job requirements in order to achieve reasonable accommodations of employees with disabilities. While reassignment to another job may be a reasonable accommodation, the rules of reasonable accommodation do not require employers to give employees with disabilities positions if no vacant ones exist for which they meet the essential qualifications, and they do not demand that the employer keep the employee on an indefinite leave of absence until a qualifying opening emerges.

For advice and representation in dealing with your reasonable accommodation issues, contact the Oakland employment law attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our employment law attorneys can help you determine if a violation has occurred and, if so, what the next steps should be. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule a confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

California Disability Law Does Not Require Providing Employees With Indefinite Leave, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Feb. 13, 2015

San Francisco Employer Fails to Show that Eliminating All Male Employees Was Only Way to Protect Female Inmates, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Aug. 29, 2014

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