Court Finds That Employer’s Decision To Terminate Employee Could Have Been Motivated By Employee’s Disability

CATEGORY: Nonprofit News, Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Nonprofit, Private Education
DATE: Mar 24, 2023

Suchin Lin was hired by Kaiser Foundation Hospitals (Kaiser) in June 1999 and worked for Kaiser in various positions through 2019.

In May 2017, Lin worked as a Software Quality Assurance Associate Engineer in the Innovation and Transformation (I&T) department, one of eight departments within Kaiser’s Technology Risk Organization (TRO).  She received positive performance evaluations in this position in March 2018.

In December 2018, the TRO organization began to plan to lay off certain employees for economic reasons and TRO directors were asked to select employees to be included on a list of potential layoffs. The I&T executive director said he chose to eliminate Lin’s position because she was struggling in performing her duties and not getting up to speed as quickly as expected. However, the Court of Appeal noted that contemporaneous documentary records did not reflect these concerns about Lin’s performance.

In January 2019, Lin fell in the workplace and suffered an injury to her left shoulder. Lin’s doctor placed her on modified duty for the next month, with restrictions requiring Lin to use a sling, limit the use of her left arm, and give time to attend medical and physical therapy visits.

On January 29, 2019, Lin’s supervisor completed numerical ratings of employee competencies for the members of the I&T team as part of the 2019 TRO layoffs. Lin’s supervisor rated Lin with the lowest ratings on the team. The same day, Lin’s supervisor discussed Lin’s performance with human resources, noting that Lin was slow at typing, and would be slower with this injury.

Lin’s doctor extended Lin’s modified duty through the end of March. On February 27, 2019, Lin’s supervisor met with Lin and discussed that Lin’s “unavailability” had occasionally forced her teammates to complete tasks for her and that her “pace of execution needs improvement.” Lin was placed on an action plan, requiring her to manage her tasks within a reasonable time. Lin testified that her supervisor pressured her to work unpaid overtime off the clock. In the wake of this meeting, Lin sent written complaints to human resources about the pressure to work unpaid overtime off the clock, causing her such emotional distress that she could not sleep. Human resources referred her to the employee assistance program, which ultimately led to her referral to a psychiatrist.

In March 2019, Lin met with her supervisor about her 2018 year-end performance evaluation. Lin was again rated “successful,” but her supervisor included notes that she was on the “lower end” of successful and needed improvement in several subcategories. Lin then went on medical leave through May 19, 2019. On April 24, 2019, Kaiser notified Lin that her position had been eliminated and her employment would be terminated effective June 23, 2019.

Lin sued Kaiser alleging disability discrimination, retaliation for requesting accommodations, failure to accommodate, failure to engage in the interactive process, and wrongful termination. Kaiser moved for summary judgment, arguing that the decision to eliminate Lin’s position occurred due to the reduction in force in December 2018, before Lin sustained her disability. Lin did not dispute that her name was selected for the initial reduction in force list in December 2018 but argued that evidence showed this proposed list was subject to further review, and Kaiser gradually reduced the list from 31 employees to the 17 who were ultimately laid off. Lin also argued that her termination was a result of her supervisor’s post-disability assessment of her and the email rating from January 29, 2019. She argued these ratings and evaluations were based on her disabilities and requests for accommodations. Lin’s supervisor never assigned her lighter tasks or discussed other possible accommodations to help her overcome her disability-related pace issues.

The trial court agreed with Kaiser and granted summary judgment in Kaiser’s favor. The trial court said the decision to terminate Lin’s employment was due to the ongoing reduction in force process and that all accommodations sought were granted.

The Court of Appeal disagreed. They found that Kaiser’s initial placement of Lin on the December 2018 reduction in force list was not discriminatory as it occurred before her disability arose. However, Kaiser’s decision to leave Lin on the reduction in force list and ultimately terminate her employment could have been based, at least in part, on Lin’s disability. The Court of Appeal considered Kaiser’s evaluation of Lin in January 2019 and noted that a reasonable jury could conclude that when Kaiser was collecting this information, it did so to determine whether to proceed with Lin’s termination.

The Court of Appeal found that a reasonable jury could find that Lin’s termination was substantially motivated by her disability because there was little evidence in the record that Lin was performing her job negatively prior to her disability. It was only after Lin’s disability that her supervisor judged her performance more harshly in comparison to her teammates.

The Court of Appeal reversed the judgment and remanded the case to the trial court.

Lin v. Kaiser Foundation Hospitals (2023) 88 Cal.App.5th 712.

Note: Schools should remember that layoffs can still serve as the bases for employment claims including disability discrimination claims.  While employers can use performance as a criterion to determine which employees to select for layoff, using performance as a criterion may be risky if the employer does not have adequate performance documentation.  Employers should reconsider using performance as a layoff criterion unless the employer has accurate, thorough, and contemporaneous documentation of performance issues and also conducted regular performance reviews. 

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