Case Dismissed Because Employee Presented No Evidence Of An Adverse Employment Action And Failed To Notify Employer Of A Disability

Category: Fire Watch
Date: Jan 7, 2020 11:06 AM

John Doe worked as a psychologist at Ironwood State Prison for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Between 2013 and 2016, Doe submitted three accommodation requests to assist him with his concentration, including a quieter workspace, a thumb drive, and a small recorder.  In support of his requests, Doe submitted medical notes from his physician, which indicated that Doe had a “learning disability,” a “chronic work-related medical condition” and a “physical disability” that made him “easily distracted” and disorganized when under stress.

When CDCR could not accommodate Doe’s requests, he voluntarily took two paid medical leaves of absence. In 2016, during a third leave of absence, Doe submitted his resignation. Doe then sued CDCR, alleging discrimination, retaliation, and harassment based on disability in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  Doe alleged he had two disabilities: asthma and dyslexia.  Doe also alleged CDCR violated FEHA by failing to both accommodate his disabilities and engage in the interactive process.

The trial court granted summary judgment for CDCR and Doe appealed.  The California Court of Appeal affirmed summary judgment for CDCR on the following grounds.

The California Court of Appeal held that Doe’s discrimination and retaliation claims failed because he presented no evidence that he was subjected to an adverse employment action—an essential element of both claims. Doe alleged CDCR subjected him to adverse employment actions by (i) criticizing his work performance, (ii) ordering a wellness check when he was out sick, (iii) suspecting him of bringing his personal cell phone into work in violation of work policy, (iv) assigning him to a primary crisis position on the same day as a union meeting, and (v) forcing him to take medical leave when he did not receive his requested accommodations.

The Court of Appeal held that the CDCR’s alleged actions were minor conduct that upset Doe, but did not threaten to materially affect the terms and conditions of his job.  Therefore, the actions did not reach the level of adverse employment action. Further, Doe’s decision to take medical leave was not an adverse employment action because the leave was voluntary and Doe requested it. The Court of Appeal also affirmed that CDCR’s failure to accommodate Doe’s alleged disability did not qualify as an adverse employment action for the purposes of a discrimination or retaliation claim.

As for Doe’s harassment claim, the Court of Appeal held that none of the alleged conduct was subjectively severe enough to constitute harassment.  Rather, each incident involved a personnel decision by Doe’s supervisor within the scope of his supervisory duties.  Simply because Doe felt his supervisor performed those duties in a negative or malicious way did not transform the conduct into disability harassment.

Finally, the Court of Appeal held that Doe’s accommodation and interactive process claims failed because he presented insufficient evidence to support that CDCR was on notice that he had a FEHA-covered disability.  Doe’s medical notes indicated that he had a “chronic work-related medical condition” and “physical disability,”  but did not state that Doe had asthma or dyslexia. Further, the medical notes failed to describe the extent of limitations his disability caused, which rendered CDCR unable to determine whether it could reasonably accommodate Doe.

Doe v. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2019 WL 6907515 (2019).

Note:

Employers should request employees to provide reasonable documentation to support a request for accommodation for an alleged disability. This allows the employer to determine whether there is a FEHA-covered disability and to consider the full range of potential accommodations in the interactive process. 

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