Employee Defeats Summary Judgement Due To Evidence Of Discrimination In Lay Off Decision

CATEGORY: Client Update for Public Agencies, Fire Watch, Law Enforcement Briefing Room, Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education, Public Employers, Public Safety
DATE: Apr 05, 2023

In June 1999, Kaiser Foundation Hospitals hired Suchin Lin as a data management associate. From 1999 to 2016, Lin was promoted or transferred several times and consistently received positive performance evaluations. In May 2017, Lin was transferred to another position.  She received an overall rating of “successful performance” in her first year in that position.  This was the same overall rating as her four, more experienced teammates in the same department.

Later in 2018, Lin again received a positive performance evaluation. But Lin was placed on a lay-off list in December 2018, along with 30 others.

On January 7, 2019, Lin fell in her workplace and injured her left shoulder. That same day, a doctor placed Lin on modified duty through January 11. This modified duty was later extended through March 25. On January 19, 2019, Lin’s supervisor Sridhar Manne discussed Lin’s performance with human resources and specifically discussed that Lin’s slower performance was possibly due to modified duty.

While Lin was dealing with her injury, Manne, his supervisor Douglas Monroe, and department head Wilson Henriquez were attempting to figure out who to lay off. In January 2019 Henriquez asked Manne to rate his five employees on a scale of one to four in five different categories. Manne gave Lin a cumulative score of nine out of 20. The rest of Lin’s teammates received a score of 16 or above.

In February 2019, Manne met with Lin to discuss her performance. Manne stated that Lin’s “unavailability” had forced her teammates to complete her tasks and that Lin needed to work faster in light of her absences due to physical therapy appointments.  He also pressured her to work unpaid overtime. Soon thereafter, Lin was placed on medical leave through May 19. On April 24, Lin was notified that she would be laid off effective June 23, along with 16 other employees. Lin promptly sued Kaiser for disability discrimination.

Courts review Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) disability discrimination claims under the McDonnell Douglas test. This test requires that the employee establish a prima facie case of discrimination: 1) the employee was a member of a protected class; 2) she was performing competently in the position she held; 3) the employer took an adverse employment action such as termination; and 4) some other circumstance suggests the employer acted on a discriminatory motive. The burden then shifts to the employer to produce admissible evidence of one or more legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its adverse employment action. Finally, the burden shifts back to the employee “to attack the employer’s proffered reasons as pretexts for discrimination, or to offer any other evidence of discriminatory motive.”

Kaiser moved for summary judgment and focused on its burden to show legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the layoff. Kaiser claimed that because Henriquez had made the decision to eliminate Lin’s position in December 2018, before Lin became disabled, there was no discriminatory animus. Lin opposed this motion by alleging that the initial decision to lay her off was not a final decision, as evidenced by the fact that the layoff list was gradually reduced from 31 employees to 17. She also argued that her ultimate termination was a result of Manne’s ratings, which only became negative after her disability and her request for accommodations.

The trial court agreed with Kaiser, and granted summary judgment. Lin appealed to the California Court of Appeals. The appellate court examined whether:  1) Kaiser’s December 2018 selection of Lin for the layoff list was tentative, or final; and 2) Kaiser’s ultimate decision to keep Lin on the layoff list and to terminate her employment was based, at least in substantial part, on Lin’s disability.

The Court of Appeal found that Kaiser’s initial list was tentative because of its changing nature. In addition, despite that Henriquez did not display any discriminatory animus, he relied upon Manne’s evaluations, which did carry discriminatory animus as shown by Manne’s conversation with human resources and the timing of the negative evaluations. The Court concluded that a reasonable jury could find that the negative evaluations Lin had received and her ultimate termination were substantially motivated by her disability.  The Court of Appeal overturned the grant of summary judgment and allowed the case to go to trial.

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

Note: This case illustrates:  1) how a supervisor’s resentment toward an employee’s need for accommodation provided evidence of disability discrimination; and 2) that a higher-level manager must ensure a lower-level manager’s evaluations are legitimate and non-discriminatory in making a layoff decision.  All supervisors must be trained that the law requires good faith in both the disability accommodation process and in the implementation of accommodations.

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