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CA Disability Discrimination and Failure to Accommodate Case Reinstated

Employers cannot discriminate against employees based on their disabling conditions. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees unless doing so would cause the employers to suffer undue hardship. They must also engage in an interactive process with a disabled employee to try to determine whether a reasonable accommodation exists. In Zamora v, Security Industry Specialists, Inc., Cal. Ct. App. Case No. H044008, the appeals court considered whether a disabled employee who was laid off from his job could proceed on his disability discrimination and wrongful termination claims.[1]

Factual and Procedural Background

Security Industry Specialists, Inc. is a staffing company that hired David Zamora and placed him to work at Apple's campus in Cupertino, California beginning on May 26, 2010, as a field supervisor. Zamora's supervisory duties required him to walk between four and six hours per day, climb, bend, stoop, stand for seven hours per day, and lift up to 50 pounds.

Zamora tripped over a curb while running to respond to a medical call on June 2, 2010. During his fall, he twisted his knee, heard a loud pop, and experienced a sudden, sharp pain. Zamora claimed that his supervisor, watch commander Jim Mazon, saw his fall and told him to ice his knee when he got home. However, Mazon did not report Zamora's injury and fall to SIS, which was required. He also did not tell Zamora to report his injury. Zamora iced his knee and wore a knee brace. He continued to work through Nov. 17, 2010. During this period, he continued to experience sharp pain in his knee and complained about it to multiple co-workers.

Zamora did not seek medical treatment for his knee injury until Oct. 14, 2010, which is when he first became eligible for health benefits through SIS after completing a probationary period. He told the orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Blatz, that his knee injury happened at work. He was diagnosed with a torn meniscus and told that his injury required knee surgery. Zamora started the workers' compensation process at that time and reported his injury to SIS on Oct. 15, 2010, providing a copy of Dr. Blatz's report.

His site manager told him to fill out a workers' compensation claim form and an SIS injury report form and told watch commander Robert Freeman to help Zamora complete the forms. SIS then terminated Mazon a few days later for failing to report Zamora's injury in June.

Between the middle of October and the middle of November, Zamora asked the site manager and his watch commander several times for accommodations that would comply with the work restrictions that he was to perform less physically demanding work. However, SIS denied his request and told him there was no other type of work available. Zamora claimed that SIS's failure to accommodate him for his work restrictions caused his knee injury to become aggravated.

SIS referred Zamora to Dr. Mojan Manzar-Nehad on Oct. 29, 2010. Zamora told Dr. Manzar-Nehad about his June 2010 knee injury and informed him that he had injured the same knee six years before but that he had fully recovered from that earlier injury following knee surgery. Dr. Manzar-Nehad prescribed pain medication and told Zamora to ice his knee and wear a soft splint. He released him back to full work without restrictions and said that an orthopedic consultation was needed to determine whether his knee injury was occupational or if it was simply due to the previous injury six years before.

Zamora stopped working on Nov. 17, 2010, because his knee pain was too severe to continue. He was seen by Dr. Anthony Dubose that day. Dr. Dubose took him off from work and scheduled for him to be seen by Dr. Samir Sharma the following day, who was an orthopedist. Dr. Dubose released Zamora to return to work with modifications the next day, including mostly seated work, sitting or standing as needed, the ability to elevate his leg when needed, and not to lift, pull, or push objects weighing more than five pounds.

Dr. Sharma administered a cortisone injection and told Zamora to go through physical therapy for six weeks. Zamora wanted a second opinion and was referred to Dr. Ashay Kale, who he saw on Dec. 2, 2010. Dr. Kale confirmed that he needed surgery and told him not to return to work until after the surgery was performed.

SIS's workers' compensation insurance carrier opened an investigation into Zamora's knee injury to determine whether it occurred at work since he had an earlier injury and there was a long delay before it was reported. As a part of that investigation, Zamora was referred to Dr. Edwin Kingsley for an opinion on whether or not his knee injury was industrial.

During the investigation, which lasted from November until the middle of March 2011, the insurance company did not pay Zamora temporary disability benefits. SIS paid Zamora his full salary during those months. The insurance company subsequently accepted Zamora's claim and issued him his first temporary disability benefits in March 2011. Zamora continued to receive temporary disability payments from the insurance company until Nov. 8, 2012. SIS also paid him his salary during the first half of March 2011. It initially claimed that it did so because Zamora had misrepresented when his temporary disability benefits started but later admitted that the overpayment was due to a clerical error made by an employee in the payroll department.

In April 2011, Thomas Seltz, the general counsel, CFO, and co-president of SIS, found out that Zamora had applied for a job through SIS to work at one of the company's new client sites. Seltz told Zamora that he would have to return the overpayment the company had made before he would be hired for the new position. He directed Vaughn to call Zamora and ask for a reimbursement, which Vaughn did. Zamora told Vaughn that he had struggled through months of pain and financial problems and could not afford to reimburse the company. Vaughn told Seltz that Zamora had said he would think about reimbursing SIS.

While Zamora was out on disability, he continued to keep the company apprised of his condition. He was told by Vaughn that he would be returned to work when he was cleared to do so and that his job would be changed to something that would involve more sitting. On June 29, 2011, Dr. Kale said that Zamora could return to modified work as an administrative supervisor. The company sent Zamora a letter on July 14, 2011, offering him the administrative supervisor position with modified duties and stating that he had to reimburse the company for the overpayment as a condition.

On July 27, 2011, Zamora saw Dr. Kale. His knee was still stiff, so Dr. Kale authorized him to remain off from work for another six weeks. Apple informed SIS that it was cutting its budget, forcing SIS to lay off workers at a number of sites, including Zamora's worksite. Zamora was selected for layoff. Seltz told the company that Zamora could only be rehired if he reimbursed the company for the overpayment. The company sent Zamora a letter on Oct. 13, 2011, demanding that he return his work uniform and company property.

Zamora had a second knee surgery on June 12, 2012. He had never been released to return to work, and he continued receiving temporary disability benefits until Nov. 8, 2012. Zamora alleged that SIS made defamatory statements about him that made it difficult to find a new job comparable to what he had at SIS. He filed a wrongful termination and retaliation lawsuit against the company after receiving a right to sue letter from the Department of Fair Employment and Housing on Oct. 5, 2012.

SIS filed a motion for summary judgment or summary adjudication in 2015. It argued that Zamora could not prove that it had discriminated against him or retaliated against him based on his disability or that it had defamed him. The court granted summary adjudication of the disability discrimination and wrongful termination causes of action, finding that Zamora had failed to present a prima facie case showing that the company had terminated him because of his disability. Zamora filed an appeal.

Issue: Whether SIS properly engaged in an interactive process with Zamora to try to find reasonable accommodations so that he could return to work?

Zamora argued that the trial court erred in granting summary adjudication on his disability discrimination, wrongful termination, and defamation claims. He argued that he had presented sufficient evidence to present a prima facie case of discrimination and that triable issues of material fact remained for a jury to decide.

Rule: It is illegal to terminate, discriminate against an employee in the conditions or terms of his or her employment based on a disability.

Under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, it is illegal for employers to terminate or otherwise discriminate against employees based on their disabling conditions in the terms or conditions of employment. [2] However, it is not illegal for employers to terminate employees with disabilities when their conditions make them unable to perform the essential functions of their jobs.

Analysis

The court began by reviewing the Fair Employment and Housing Act. It found that employers must provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees as long as they do not pose an undue burden. Employers must also engage in an interactive process with employees who have disabilities to determine whether effective reasonable accommodations exist.

Employees can present a prima facie case to raise a presumption that discrimination has occurred. A prima facie case of disparate treatment disability discrimination includes presenting evidence that the employee suffered a disabling condition that was known by the employer but could still perform the functions of his or her job with or without reasonable accommodations and was subsequently discharged from his or her job because of the disability. The burden of proof then switches to the employer to show that it had a non-discriminatory, legitimate reason for terminating the employee unrelated to his or her disability. The employee will then have the burden of showing that the reason given by the employer was pretextual. However, this analysis does not apply when an employee presents direct evidence of discrimination, which Zamora argued that he had. However, the appeals court found that Zamora had not presented direct evidence, so the analysis applied.

The court found that Zamora did establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination and that the reason that was given by SIS for his termination was pretextual.[3] It found that Zamora had presented a prima facie case of disability discrimination, failing to engage in an interactive process, wrongful termination, and failing to reasonably accommodate him. It found that Zamora did not establish a prima facie case of retaliation or defamation.

Conclusion

The court reversed the trial court's decision and ordered it to issue a new order granting summary judgment of the retaliation and defamation claims but to deny summary adjudication of the other causes of action. The case was returned to the lower court for further proceedings on the remaining causes of action.

Consult With an Employment Law Attorney

Disability discrimination claims are complex. If you believe that your employer or former employer discriminated against you based on your disability, you should speak to an experienced employment law attorney. Contact Steven M. Sweat, APC today at 866.966.5240.

Sources

[1] Justia - Zamora v. Security Industry Specialists, Inc.

[2] elaborlaw.com - Disability Discrimination

[3] elaborlaw.com - Wrongful Termination

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