California: Disability Claims May Look to Employer’s Past Ability to Accommodate

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February 14, 2017

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A recent California case demonstrates that an employer’s past ability to accommodate may be considered in an employee’s failure to accommodate claim. In Atkins v. City of Los Angeles, a group of recruit officers suffered temporary injuries during the course of training. The recruits were put in the “Recycle program,” in which they were assigned to light-duty administrative positions until they recovered or were determined to be permanently disabled. However, the Los Angeles Police Department ended the Recycle program while the recruits were still recovering, and asked the recruits to immediately obtain medical clearance to return to training. Upon failure to do so, the Department terminated the recruits.

The recruits sued the City, alleging discrimination based on physical disability, failure to accommodate, and failure to engage in the interactive process. Of these, the court stated that the circumstances satisfied the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) requirements for a failure to accommodate claim.

In particular, the reasonableness of an accommodation needs to be considered in context of an employer’s policies and practices. Because the City had previously allowed recruit officers to stay in the Recycle program indefinitely, the City could not deny the same accommodation to the plaintiffs. While the City was not required to keep the Recycle Program running, the court found that (1) the light-duty assignments were a reasonable accommodation, given the City’s past practices, and (2) the City erred in cutting off the plaintiffs’ accommodation when they had entered the program prior to its official closure.

Employers must take care to review their historical practices and procedures when determining what accommodations to provide to employees and applicants.

Action Items

  1. Review historical practices and procedures when determining what accommodations are available to employees and applicants.
  2. Consider consulting legal counsel before denying any requests for accommodations.
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