Employee’s ‘location-specific’ mental disability claim advances

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By Joy Waltemath

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

Despite sharing an employer’s concern that recognizing “circumstance-specific” conditions as disabilities under the ADA could open the door to accommodation claims beyond the scope of the Act’s intended protections, a federal district court in California nonetheless refused to conclude as a matter of law that an employee—who appeared to claim that working at one location exacerbated her underlying mental conditions to the point they become debilitating but working at alternative locations would not exacerbate those conditions—was not disabled. The language of the ADAAA “casts a wide net, including provisions that strongly suggest Congress’s intent to include intermittent or latent conditions in its definition of disability,” said the court, denying summary judgment against her disability discrimination, reasonable accommodation, and interactive process claims (Lozano v. County of Santa Clara, January 13, 2017, Davila, E.).

Transfer requests. The employee alleged that her county employer discriminated against her and failed to accommodate her mental disabilities by refusing to transfer her to a vacant position away from the location where she worked for six years. During that time, she took several medical leaves and made several accommodation requests to be transferred away from the Senter Road location, all of which were denied. In support of one of her accommodation requests, her treating psychotherapist stated that the symptoms of her condition could worsen if she were exposed to “cognitive triggers” and that it was imperative she not return to that worksite.

Although the county ultimately offered her a positon at a different worksite, which she immediately accepted, she rejected the offer after being informed that because she had been on leave for a long period of time, she would have to undergo six months of training at the Senter Road location. She ultimately sued, asserting numerous claims under the ADA.

Disability discrimination. The employer first argued that the employee was not disabled as a matter of law because her disability only arose in connection with a single workplace. Although the court observed that the employer’s argument and the cases cited in support were compelling, it found that in light of the employee’s multiple mental illness diagnoses and the ADAAA’s instruction that the definition of disability should be read expansively “to the maximum extent permitted,” summary judgment was inappropriate here.

Not only did all the cited cases predate the ADAAA, the employee offered evidence from her doctors as to the legitimacy, severity, extent, and impact of her alleged mental disabilities. As a result of these conditions, she contended, she was unable to perform any of the essential functions of her Senter Road job but would be able to perform all functions at another location. Thus a triable fact issue existed as to whether she was disabled.

Failure to accommodate. As to her failure-to-accommodate claim, while the county argued that her request for a transfer was not reasonable as a matter of law, the court found no basis to conclude her request was per se unreasonable. To the contrary, assuming that she qualifies as disabled, the court pointed out that a reassignment to a vacant position or a modification to a required training course are expressly identified in the statutory definition of what may constitute reasonable accommodations. While this, said the court, did not necessarily mean the county was under an obligation to grant the requested transfer, it did mean it was under an obligation to do more than reject it out of hand.

Further, while multiple county workers met with the employee regarding her accommodation requests, a fact issue existed at to whether the meetings were held in good faith or involved efforts by the county to explore possible accommodations. Observing that the employee made multiple accommodation requests for a transfer away from Senter Road and that she unsuccessfully applied for five different positions over a six month period, the court found that not only did the county fail to find and transfer the employee to an alternative position, it rejected her application to positions she proactively sought out and applied to herself.

And when it finally did offer her a position at a different location, it required that she undergo a mandatory six-month training period at Senter Road. Here, said the court, a jury could find that conditioning an accommodation on the employee having to engage in the very aspect of the job from which she sought relief was not a reasonable accommodation.

Source:: Employment Law Daily Newsfeed


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