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Teacher Can Proceed With Disability Discrimination Claim After District Called Her “A Liability” When It Revoked Her Conditional Job Offer
In 2003, La Vonya Price had a serious stroke that left her paralyzed. After years of physical therapy and hard work, Price slightly recovered and relearned how to speak, walk, and use her body. Price still had some permanent paralysis, limited mobility, and issues lifting and grasping objects.
In 2018, Price was working as a substitute Instructional Assistant for the Victory Valley Union High School District when a full-time position opened up. Price applied and received a conditional offer of employment, contingent on her passing a physical examination, a requirement that the District required of all full-time hires. Price had not been required to pass a physical to work as a substitute in the same position.
Price failed this physical examination, which a third-party medical professional administered. The District rescinded her job offer, stating that she was a “liability.” The District also stated in a letter to Price that her failure on the physical examination disqualified her from her current position as an Instructional Assistant and any future positions with the District.
Price sued the District for several claims, including disability discrimination in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The trial court granted the District’s motion for summary judgment and entered judgment for the District. Price timely appealed.
The FEHA prohibits an employer from refusing to hire an applicant based on the applicant’s actual or perceived physical disability. To assess Price’s FEHA discrimination claim, the California Court of Appeal used the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. Under the McDonnell Douglas test, Price had the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability discrimination by showing that she: 1) had a disability or was regarded as having a disability; 2) could perform the essential duties of a job with or without reasonable accommodations, and 3) was subjected to an adverse employment action because of the disability or perceived disability.
As to the first essential element of Price’s claim for disability discrimination, the Court agreed that a jury could reasonably conclude that the District regarded Price as disabled. Price failed the “physical” test during her physical examination, and the doctor concluded that Price was not “medically suitable for the position.” Based on the doctor’s report, the District rescinded Price’s job offer. From this evidence, a jury could conclude that the District regarded Price as having, or potentially having, a physical disability that limited her work-related abilities.
Second, a triable issue of fact also existed as to whether Price could perform the essential functions of the position with or without reasonable accommodation. The District argued Price could not perform the essential functions of a special education Instructional Assistant because Price could not run after students. As a substitute Instructional Assistant, however, Price successfully performed, even though she frequently had to run after students. Moreover, the District taught special needs students in five different settings. While the students in the emotionally disturbed setting might be runners, students in other settings would not be runners. Price possibly could have been placed in three special needs settings where students do not require any physical assistance or physical supervision.
Third, the parties agreed that the revocation of Price’s job offer was an adverse employment action. The Court found that there was a triable issue of fact as to whether Price’s disability was a substantial motivating reason for the District’s decision to rescind the offer. The District determined that Price was “NOT medically suitable for the position” because of the strength and balance deficits in her right leg. According to Price, when she asked for more of an explanation about that decision, the District told her several times, “you are a liability.” Taken together, a reasonable jury could find that the District rescinded Price’s job offer because of an actual or perceived disability or potential disability.
The Court of Appeal assumed, without deciding, that the District’s legitimate reason for rescinding Price’s conditional job offer was because of the doctor’s report that found she was not medically qualified.
The Court then examined the final step in the McDonnell Douglas framework and found that Price raised a triable dispute as to whether the District’s reason for revoking her offer was a pretext. The Court agreed with Price that the fact that the District told her “you are a liability” several times during their meeting when the District rescinded her job offer was sufficient evidence of pretext to deny the District’s motion for summary adjudication.
Price v. Victor Valley Union High Sch. Dist., 2022 WL 16845113 (Nov. 9, 2022).
This is another California Court of Appeal case that has found that calling an applicant or employee a “liability” is evidence of discriminatory animus on the basis of disability.