Location, Location, Location! Employees May Qualify for Disability Retirement If They Can No Longer Perform Their Usual Job Duties At The Location Where Their Employer Will Allow Them To Work

Category: Blog Posts
Date: Jan 16, 2020 10:58 AM

Plaintiff Cari McCormick worked as an appraiser for Lake County.  In 2010, she started to experience physical pain throughout her body and felt constantly fatigued.  McCormick’s symptoms worsened when she was in her office environment but felt much better if she was at home or outside.  McCormick was eventually told by her supervisors that she “was a liability” and “should stay home.”  McCormick took leave under the Family Medical Leave Act and continued to ask for accommodations such as permission to telecommute.  However, her supervisors declined to let her work anywhere other than in the courthouse.  In May 2013, Lake County terminated McCormick’s employment because she had exhausted her medical leave.

McCormick applied for disability retirement to CalPERS.  In the application, she stated that her disability was “[respiratory] and systemic health problems as a result of exposures in indoor environment” at the courthouse.  She also explained that she could work in another building but that her employer would not allow her to work outside of the courthouse.  CalPERS denied the application in December 2014.  McCormick appealed the decision.  At the administrative hearing on the appeal, McCormick’s doctor indicated that he had initially opined that McCormick was “temporarily partially disabled.”  He explained at the hearing that he had assumed in forming his initial assessment that she would be able to find a different location in which to work.  While his diagnosis remained unchanged, McCormick’s doctor testified that McCormick was permanently disabled to the extent that she was unable to work at that courthouse due to her symptoms.  CalPERS presented testimony from another one of McCormick’s doctors who opined that “if the environment can be amended or… accommodations [could be provided] to help her, then she would not be disabled.”

Accordingly, based on the medical testimony, the administrative law judge (ALJ) issued a proposed decision denying McCormick’s appeal and finding that she was not permanently disabled or substantially incapacitated from performing her usual job duties at the time she submitted her disability retirement application.  The ALJ rejected McCormick’s argument that because the County would not accommodate her to work at a location outside the courthouse, she was substantially incapacitated from performing her usual job duties.  The Board of Supervisors adopted the ALJ’s proposed decision and McCormick filed a petition for writ of administrative mandate.

The Court of Appeal did not dispute that McCormick was physically capable of performing her usual job duties if she worked in an environment that did not trigger her systems.  However, the Court acknowledged that “Section 21156 is concerned with members’ ability to perform their duties for their actual employers, not their ability to perform their duties in the abstract.  Thus, the relevant question is whether McCormick was incapacitated from performing the duties of an Appraiser III for Lake County, not whether she was incapacitated from performing them elsewhere.”  Thus, whether McCormick was able to perform the duties of an appraiser somewhere other than the Lakeport courthouse did not foreclose a finding that under Section 21156 that she was unable to perform her usual job duties.  Moreover, Lake County denied McCormick’s request for accommodation, which included a request to work in a different location or environment. Therefore, the Court found that CalPERS may not deny disability retirement under Section 21156 when, due to a medical condition, applicants can no longer perform their duties at the only location where their employer will allow them to work.

Based on the holding of this case, employers should explore, during an interactive process meeting, whether the employee can perform their essential job duties at a different work location as a reasonable accommodation.  If the employer denies such an accommodation, then the employee may be found to be substantially incapacitated from performance of their usual job duties and entitled to a disability retirement.

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