Winning a Disability Discrimination Case in California, Even if Your Case is Devoid of Proof of Employer Malice or Bad Faith

Every employer has policies regarding employees with disabilities. For example, many employees whose disabilities leave them unable to do the essential duties of their job, even with an accommodation, may face termination. This may be legally allowable because discrimination law does not require employers to retain employees who cannot perform the mandatory duties of a position.

So, what happens when you lose your job because your employer made an honest mistake and erroneously misapplied its generally legal policies regarding employees with disabilities? Does the fact that the policy was legal and the mistake was a good-faith one mean that you cannot win a disability discrimination case in California? The answer, as it turns out, is “no, it doesn’t.” Bad faith or an illegal policy isn’t required. As always, be sure to consult an experienced Oakland disability discrimination attorney to find out how best to proceed if you’ve been fired due to your disability.

A recent case from Southern California offers very good news for workers who suffer discrimination, even when that discrimination comes in the form of a good-faith gaffe in applying a permissible policy. In that case, J.G. was a pharmaceutical sales rep for a major pharmaceutical company. Like many pharmaceutical sales reps, J.G.’s job required him to drive extensively.

Unfortunately, the sales rep developed macular degeneration. J.G.’s doctor concluded that he could not work because he could not drive safely, and wrote out a certification to that effect. A few months later, a temporary employee in the company’s benefits department terminated J.G. She made that decision due to an erroneous understanding of the company’s policies and practices for termination. In reality, J.G. should not have been terminated when he was.

J.G. sent the employer several correspondences in which he requesting to be reinstated and accommodated through a reassignment to a position that did not involve driving. The company took no action to reinstate J.G. The sales rep sued, arguing that his termination violated California’s laws against disability discrimination. The Court of Appeal concluded that J.G. was entitled to pursue this claim.

In a lot of discrimination cases, there is a three-part legal “test” that requires the employee to first offer a degree of proof that he was the victim of discrimination, then requires the employer to offer a legitimate, non-discriminatory basis for its action. If the employer does that, the employee must show that the legitimate reason offered was really just a pretext for a discriminatory motive.

How having direct evidence of discrimination helps

However, you, as a discriminated employee, are only required to jump through these evidentiary hoops if your case relies solely on indirect evidence of discrimination. If you have direct evidence, the law does not require you to satisfy this standard. In California, the law says that, if you have proof that your employer knew (or perceived) that you had a disability and that your actual or perceived disability was a “substantial motivating reason” for the negative action the employer took against you, then you have direct evidence of discrimination and can bypass that three-part test.

Note what isn’t included in California’s standard for valid direct proof of disability discrimination. There is no requirement that you, as the harmed employee, prove that your employer acted maliciously or in bad faith. All it requires is that you employer knew about your disability and fired (or took other adverse employment action against) you because of it. It doesn’t matter why; it only matters that the employer did it.

Some kinds of cases require that you show that the defendant acted with bad motives. However, your disability discrimination may potentially succeed even if all the proof clearly shows an absence of bad faith, which means that your path to possible success may be broader than you thought. Reach out to The Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch for the advice and counsel you need. Attorney Fuerch is an experienced Oakland employment attorney who has helped many California workers seek justice. To learn more about how we can help, contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.