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California Court of Appeals Holds That Employer’s Mistaken Belief About Disabled Employee Constitutes Evidence of Disability Discrimination

Published by and on December 10, 2019

California Court of Appeal reverses trial court’s grant of summary adjudication to employer, holding that the employer’s mistaken belief that employee was totally disabled and terminating employment constituted direct evidence of disability discrimination.

In Glynn v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, a California Court of Appeals recently reversed a trial court’s grant of summary adjudication to defendant employer, Allergan, Inc., in a lawsuit brought by a former Allergan employee alleging disability discrimination under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), among other claims. Case No. B296735 (Cal. Ct. App. Nov. 13, 2019). The Court held that the employer’s mistaken belief that an employee was totally disabled, and subsequent termination of employment based on the mistaken belief, constituted direct evidence of disability discrimination under the FEHA.

The Glynn case involved a former pharmaceutical sales representative, whose primary job duties were driving to and from medical offices selling products for Allergan. Due to a medical condition, the plaintiff could not safely drive, and Allergan granted him a leave of absence. Per Allergan’s reasonable accommodation policy, reassignment to a vacant position is a potential accommodation, in addition to a leave of absence. While on leave, the plaintiff repeatedly asked Allergan for help reassigning him to a different position that did not involve driving. Allegan did not reassign him, even though he applied for several open positions.

After being on leave for approximately seven months, Allergan sent the plaintiff a letter terminating his employment based on a mistaken belief that the employee was unable to return to work, with or without accommodation. Despite the plaintiff’s efforts to correct the mistake, Allergan did not reinstate his employment. After the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the company, Allergan sent plaintiff a letter stating that at the time of termination, the company sincerely believed the actions taken were appropriate. Allergan’s letter also stated that the reasonable accommodation process should have been handled better and that plaintiff’s employment should not have been terminated.

The Court found that Allergan’s termination, based on a mistaken belief, constituted direct evidence of disability discrimination under the FEHA. The Court reasoned that the FEHA does not require an employee with an actual or perceived disability to prove that an employer’s adverse action (e.g., termination) was motivated by animosity or ill will against the employee. They further reasoned that the FEHA protects employees from an employer’s erroneous or mistaken beliefs about an employee’s physical condition, even where an employer’s mistake was reasonable and made in good faith. Based on its interpretation of the FEHA, the Court held that Allergan’s termination of plaintiff, even if reasonable and made in good faith, constituted direct evidence of disability discrimination. Accordingly, the Court reversed the lower court’s grant of summary adjudication for Allergan.

Welter Insight

While the Glynn opinion is most applicable to California employers, the Court of Appeal’s decision is a good reminder about the leave of absence review process for all employers. Employers must thoroughly review any proposed employee terminations or adverse employment actions for employees on a leave of absence to ensure compliance under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other state and local disability discrimination laws. An employer’s understanding of the facts before taking any adverse employment action is critical.

Furthermore, under the ADA, employers must engage employees with disabilities in the interactive process in good faith when an employee requests a reasonable accommodation. The interactive process is key in ensuring that an employer understands all facts related to an employee’s need for accommodation, including a leave of absence. Had Allergan done so with the plaintiff in the Glynn case, the company may have avoided mistakenly terminating his employment.

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