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Injured, Sick and Disabled Workers

The tangle of laws governing treatment of injured, sick and disabled workers can make it difficult for an employer to make the right choice. If the employer makes the wrong choice, a lawsuit with its attendant costs and exposure to a jury verdict frequently follows.

The Costs of Being Wrong

A second grade teacher fell in her classroom, injuring her knees to the extent she required surgery. She subsequently developed fibromyalgia, a pain syndrome. When she was released to return to work 20 months later to a sedentary position, the school district required her to return as a second grade teacher (not sedentary), even though there were several available sedentary jobs for which she was qualified. A Los Angeles County jury awarded her $1,410,709. Reasonable accommodation includes putting a disabled employee into a vacant position if she is no longer able to perform her regular job. Cortes v. Montebello Unified Sch. Dist., Case No. BC359419 (L.A. Superior Court 5/27/2008).

An LAPD officer returned to work following a 4-year workers compensation leave, but then was told he would not be allowed to work any more because the Workers Compensation Appeals Board had adjudicated him 100 percent permanently disabled. A Los Angeles County jury awarded him $1,571,500. Employers must make every effort to allow their disabled employees to continue to work even if a workers compensation ruling appears to bar a return to work. Cuiellette v. City of Los Angeles, Case No. BC311647 (L.A. Superior Court 9/11/2007).

A city employee took FMLA leave to undergo bypass surgery. Although her cardiologist cleared her to return to work, her employer insisted that she see a city doctor for clearance. She refused to go and was fired. An Orange County jury awarded her $216,575. Employers must strictly follow the rules on medical certification. Cosby v. City of Orange, Case No. 07CC00242 (Orange County Superior Court 2/15/2008).

Applicable Laws

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibit discrimination against disabled employees who are able to perform the essential functions of their jobs with or without accommodation, and require employers to provide reasonable accommodation to disabled employees.

Other laws also provide protection for injured, sick and disabled employees — the Family and Medical Leave Act, the California Family Rights Act, the pregnancy disability provisions of the Fair Employment and Housing Act and the Workers’ Compensation Act.

Our Tips for Handling Injured and Disabled Workers provides an overview of the important principles for all these statutes. An employee’s condition may require the employer to apply principles from all, some, one or none of the statutes discussed.

Employers must pay close attention to having an accurate and up-to-date job description for each employee, and to obtaining medical verification for physical and mental conditions that affect employment decisions. Job descriptions must describe the essential functions of each position. Obtaining medical verification will assure that the employer has the necessary information to confirm the effect of the employee’s condition on performance of job duties. It will also support the employer’s decision if the employee should challenge any adverse actions.

Other Resources
 
EEOC Disability Discrimination Page
DOL Family & Medical Leave Page
DFEH Publication on Disability Discrimination
DFEH Publication on California Family Rights Act
DFEH Publication on Pregnancy
Division of Workers’ Compensation Employer Information