Employers Must Beware of the Duty to Accommodate | Employment and Labor Law

Employment and Labor Law | The Court of Appeal upheld a Los Angeles Superior Court jury’s conclusion that the City of Los Angeles violated the Fair Employment Housing Act (F.E.H.A). Atkins v. City of Los Angeles. The decision, awarded 5 recruit officers who sustained various injuries while training in the police academy over $12 million- including millions in future economic damages. The five recruits were assigned to light duty administrative positions until it was determined that they had recovered fully or became permanently disabled. The Department amended that policy to impose a six-month limit on how long a recruit could stay in the program. The City notified the recruits that they had to return to the Academy or face termination. The 5 recruits were unable to obtain clearance to return to the Academy, and were terminated.

The jury found that the City had discriminated against the recruit officers because of their disabilities, by failing to provide them with reasonable accommodation, and by failing to engage in the interactive process.  The City appealed the decision, arguing that the FEHA duty to accommodate does not extend to an employee who was never qualified for the position into which he or she was hired. The City further argued that the City was not under any obligation to make the light duty positions permanent or to transfer the recruits to another job within the City- because there weren’t any positions available. The Court found that the city had a duty to accommodate the injured recruits consistent with the City’s past practice. While FEHA does not require light duty accommodations, the City could not apply a policy change to the recruits, who received light duty prior to the City’s change in policy. The City effectively denied them the same accommodation provided to past recruit officers.

Upon reviewing the future economic damages award, the award was reversed. The Court held that the basis of the award was speculative. The award was based on the assumption that all 5 recruit officers, had they not been terminated- would have gone on to pass academy and have long successful careers within the department. The City will have the opportunity to retry the claim for future economic damages.

What Atkins Means for Employers

This case is a bold reminder of the obligation that employers have to conduct an interactive process with individuals and determine whether a reasonable accommodation can be made. When an employer determines that an individual cannot be accommodated without participating in the interactive process (whether based solely upon medical evidence or an employer’s policy), it runs afoul of its legal obligations under the FEHA and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It is important to note that every employment law situation is unique and this Employment Law  Update is not a replacement for legal counsel. If you have further questions or would like additional information, please contact Jerry Pearson at jpearson@youngwooldridge.com.