A California District Court of Appeals has confirmed a jury's decision from 2015, which granted $550,000 to a custodian who was improperly terminated from his employer of over 15 years.
This particular case has been moving through the judicial system for quite some time. In 2010, the then District employee, was instructed to move furniture in the absence of his custodial coworkers. The man subsequently suffered a lower back injury which left him seeing several doctors, and unable to work for weeks. When he finally returned to work, he brought a doctor’s note that issued permanent work restrictions for his back condition, stating that he could no longer use ladders as part of his job (as the climbing and twisting motion would aggravate his injury). After the note was handed in to The District, the custodian was ordered to go on leave, without pay, until further notice. A few days later, HR reps from the District stated that they couldn’t accommodate his work restrictions, but that they would set up an “interactive process meeting” in order to meet the District’s affirmative duty to engage in a good faith interactive process to determine if an accommodation could be made.
At the accommodation meeting, the District concluded that accommodating the ladder restriction would pose an “undue hardship” and the determination was made that the employee was no longer capable of performing his job, resulting in termination. The employee sued (2011) under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act alleging failure to engage in a good faith interactive process, failure to accommodate and disability discrimination.
Ultimately, the courts found on both occasions, substantial evidence that supported the notion that the man could perform the essential functions of his job with reasonable accommodation. As a night custodian, his essential job functions were to clean classrooms and restrooms. He occasionally used a ladder for changing ceiling light bulbs, which occurred about once a month and if necessary, he could swap duties with another custodian.
Unfortunately, situations such as this happen frequently, which is why every organization must take the proper steps in order to avoid them. Having a knowledgeable HR-staff or outsourcing to a competent staff, is crucial for success and if the HR reps had taken the time to thoroughly investigate, this case could have been avoided.