A 2011 decision out of California’s Second Appellate District Court further complicated the difficult analysis regarding when an employee is entitled to light duty as a reasonable accommodation under California disability laws. In Cuiellette v. City of Los Angeles, the Court affirmed a $1,571,500 judgment in favor of a police officer plaintiff for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate after he was injured on the job and placed on disability leave. Plaintiff was deemed to be 100-percent disabled in his workers’ compensation claim. Yet, he provided the city with a doctor’s note authorizing him to perform “permanent light duty — administrative work.”
Initially, the LAPD accepted plaintiff’s return to work note and assigned him to a court desk position, which was considered a “permanent light duty” position. But days later, plaintiff’s supervisor released him from his position because of the 100-percent disabled rating issued through the workers’ compensation proceedings.
The Court held that the employer’s removal of the employee from the light duty position constituted disability discrimination. The Court relied on evidence that the city had a long-standing policy and practice of allowing disabled peace officers to perform light duty assignments that did not require the ability to perform all of the essential functions of a peace officer, and that he was able to perform the essential functions of the court desk position without accommodation.
Importantly, the Court noted that the city never engaged in the analysis required under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). Thus, despite the “100-percent disabled” rating, the employer could not determine the employee was incapable of performing any departmental job without the necessary analysis and interactive process required under FEHA. The Court essentially ruled that employers should not solely rely on disability determinations made in workers’ compensation matters to decide whether to return employees back to work or to decide whether they are able to take on a light duty assignment. The Court stated that the proper question to ask is whether an employee’s medical restrictions prevent the employee from performing the essential functions of a job.
This case is an important reminder to California employers that an individualized assessment must be conducted before taking an adverse employment action against an employee based on physical limitations. The FEHA analysis must be separate from the workers’ compensation analysis. Moreover, employers cannot blindly rely on the findings, including disability ratings, derived in the workers’ compensation proceeding.
The decision has further complicated the issue of whether light duty assignments may be required to be offered as an accommodation by an employer. It distinguished the facts from those in Raine v. City of Burbank, which held that there is no obligation to provide employees permanent light duty assignments as an accommodation. In Raine, Burbank had a light duty policy for officers who were temporarily disabled, but not those permanently disabled as in the LAPD’s case. As such, the Raine court held there was no obligation to make a temporary assignment permanent.
Therefore, the case also highlights the importance of clearly specifying whether employer policies or practices of offering light duty assignments are intended to be deemed permanent positions or are only for temporary work restrictions.