December 7, 2017

Key California Employment Law Cases: October 2017

This month’s key California employment law cases involve disability discrimination claims and procedural issues related to workers’ compensation proceedings.

Disability Discrimination Neufeld v. WinCo Holdings, Inc., 699 Fed. Appx. 659 (9th Cir. 2017)

Summary:  Employee who suffered from anxiety, and was terminated after he missed several days of work without providing satisfactory doctor’s note, could not prevail on disability discrimination claim because regular and predictable attendance was essential function of his job.

Facts:  Plaintiff, who worked as a cashier at a grocery store operated by defendant, suffered from anxiety, and his condition prevented him from coming to work on a regular and predictable basis.  Defendant terminated plaintiff’s employment because he missed several days of work and failed to submit a doctor’s note confirming that the absences were caused by anxiety.  Plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging that his termination violated the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  The federal district found that plaintiff could not prevail on his FEHA claim because regular and predictable attendance was an essential function of his job, and he could not perform that function with or without reasonable accommodation. 

Court’s Decision:  The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.  First, regular and predictable attendance was an essential function of plaintiff’s job as a cashier; he failed to establish that his was an unusual case in which regular and predictable attendance was not an essential job function.  Second, plaintiff could not perform his primary job function—operating a cash register—at home.  Finally, plaintiff failed to demonstrate that he could perform his cashier responsibilities with reasonable accommodation because his proposed accommodations were not reasonable; they would have exempted him from one or more of the essential functions of his position.

Practical Implications:  Although this case was not selected for publication in an official reporter, and therefore cannot be cited as legal precedent, employers and their attorneys can look to the reasoning in this decision when determining how to defend themselves if an employee files a disability discrimination lawsuit after being terminated for poor attendance.  However, some jobs may not require regular and predictable attendance, or could be performed outside of the usual workplace as an accommodation.  Consider crafting job descriptions to clearly state that regular and predictable attendance at the usual site of work is an essential job duty.

Procedure/Workers’ Compensation – Va Ly v. County of Fresno, 16 Cal. App. 5th 134, 223 Cal. Rptr. 3d 875 (2017)

Summary:  Doctrine of res judicata precluded plaintiffs from pursuing claims for discrimination in court because they asserted same primary right—recovery for injury caused by workplace discrimination, harassment and retaliation—both in court and in workers’ compensation proceedings, and workers’ compensation administrative law judges denied their claims on merits.

Facts:  Plaintiffs alleged they were subjected to race and national origin discrimination, harassment and retaliation by defendant.  They filed suit against defendant in court asserting claims under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), while simultaneously pursuing claims in separate workers’ compensation proceedings for psychiatric injuries arising from discrimination, harassment and retaliation.  The workers’ compensation administrative law judges denied plaintiffs’ claims after finding that defendant’s actions were non-discriminatory, good faith personnel decisions.  Defendant subsequently moved for summary judgment in court based on the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel, arguing that the workers’ compensation decisions barred plaintiffs’ FEHA claims.  The court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

Court’s Decision:  The California Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that summary judgment was proper based upon the doctrine of res judicata because plaintiffs’ alleged a violation of the same primary right—recovery for an injury caused by discrimination, harassment and retaliation in the workplace—in both their court and workers’ compensation proceedings.  The standard for proving unlawful discrimination is broader under FEHA than under the California’s workers’ compensation statute, which means that a defendant may prevail in a workers’ compensation action without disproving unlawful discrimination.  However, in this case plaintiffs’ FEHA claims were precluded because they elected to pursue claims based on the same primary right in workers’ compensation proceedings and in court, and the workers’ compensation tribunals issued adverse rulings on the merits which were final and binding, and precluded the same primary right from being litigated in court.

Practical Implications:  If an employee has simultaneously filed claims for workers’ compensation and in court, consider whether the employee is alleging a violation of the same primary right in both, and whether a decision on the merits in one proceeding will preclude recovery in the other.