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Reasonable Accommodation Employment Disability Claim Limited by California Court

People who are injured at work in California have the right to file workers' compensation claims to recover medical expenses and disability benefits. While the Workers' Compensation Act is the exclusive remedy for injuries that happen at work, people who request accommodations and are denied may also have FEHA claims against their employers. In Shirvanyan v. Los Angeles Community College District, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. B296593, the appeals court considered a case in which a plaintiff's employer failed to engage in an interactive process to identify reasonable accommodations for her injuries after her request.[1]

Factual and Procedural Background

Anahit Shirvanyan was employed by the Los Angeles Community College District in the child development center of the Los Angeles Valley College for eight years, starting in 2007. She worked as a kitchen coordinator and was responsible for preparing meals, washing dishes, carrying heavy carts, and other assorted tasks. Her job required her to engage in repetitive motions with her hands, repetitive bending and lifting, and other similar activities. She was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and nerve damage in her arm and wrist in 2014. She started wearing a brace each day and reduced her hours. In 2015, her primary care doctor diagnosed her with moderate to severe carpal tunnel syndrome in her right upper arm and weakness in her right hand. She was prescribed physical therapy and wrist support.

Shirvanyan told her supervisor about her carpal tunnel syndrome and often asked coworkers to help her with more strenuous tasks. Ms. Shirvanyan asked for several accommodations, including an electric can opener, extra help in the kitchen to wash dishes when the dishwasher broke, the ability to serve the children food on paper plates instead of dishes, and a transfer from the kitchen to supervise children. All of her requests were denied. While her supervisors knew about her diagnosis, they did not talk about changing her job duties to accommodate her injury or to give her time off from work to deal with it.

On Dec. 18, 2015, Shirvanyan was injured while trying to open the door of an industrial dishwasher. She left work early because of the pain and went to her doctor. She experienced pain that kept her from moving her neck, right shoulder, and right arm. Her doctor gave her a medical release from work until March 7, 2016. He said that length of time was necessary to allow her to recover from the nerve damage. Shirvanyan's daughter delivered the medical release to the center on Jan. 6, 2016. The center never contacted Shirvanyan or her daughter, and Shirvanyan did not request an extension beyond March 6 for returning to work. She also did not provide further medical releases.

Shirvanyan filed a workers' compensation claim in Dec. 2015 after her shoulder injury. She subsequently filed a lawsuit under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act against her employer for failing to provide reasonable accommodations. In her lawsuit, she did not specify whether the requested accommodations that were denied were for her carpal tunnel syndrome injuries from 2014 or her shoulder injury from 2015.

Shirvanyan started seeing Dr. Emmett Berg in Jan. 2016. He diagnosed her with severe carpal tunnel syndrome, spondylitis of her right elbow, severe pathology of her right shoulder, and degenerative disc disease of her cervical spine. A psychological expert who examined her in Oct. 2018 testified that she suffered from the major depressive disorder as a result of believing that the center had not helped her.

In her complaint, Shirvanyan alleged three causes of action, including disability discrimination under FEHA, failing to provide reasonable accommodations, and failing to engage in an interactive process. She claimed that she developed major depressive disorder as a result. The case went to a jury trial. She filed a motion in limine asking the court to exclude information about her workers' compensation claim. She argued that she was not seeking damages for her physical injuries but was instead asking for lost wages and emotional distress damages.

After she presented her case in chief, the defendant filed a motion for nonsuit and argued that Shirvanyan had failed to present evidence that there was a reasonable and available accommodation for her injuries when the defendant failed to engage in an interactive process. The court denied the defendant's motion and a jury instruction that it requested about the availability of reasonable accommodations. The court instead used a jury instruction about accommodations that both sides had agreed to give.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of Shirvanyan on her reasonable accommodations and interactive process claims. It denied her claim of disability discrimination. She was awarded a total of $2,899,670 in damages. The District then filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, arguing that Shirvanyan had failed to present evidence about the availability of reasonable accommodations. The court denied that argument, finding that it was not an element of an interactive process claim. The District also argued that Shirvanyan's damages solely arose from her injuries at work and could only be recovered through her workers' compensation claim. The court also denied that argument. The District filed an appeal.

Issues: 1. Whether the availability of reasonable accommodations is an element of an interactive process claim? 2. Whether Shirvanyan's recovery under FEHA was barred under the Workers' Compensation Act?

The court accepted two arguments on appeal. The first issue was whether an interactive process claim requires a plaintiff to identify a reasonable accommodation that was available at the time when an interactive process should have happened. The second issue concerned Shirvanyan's damages. The District argued that her damages arose from her workplace injuries, her FEHA claim was precluded by the Workers' Compensation Act.

Rules: 1. Employers must engage in an interactive process with an employee who requests an accommodation to determine whether any reasonable accommodations are available for the employee's known physical or mental condition. 2. The Workers' Compensation Act provides the exclusive remedy for employees' injuries that happen at work.

Under Cal. Gov. Code § 12940(n), employers are required to engage in an interactive process when an employee requests an accommodation for a known physical or mental condition to identify any reasonable accommodations that might be available.[2] The Workers' Compensation Act provides the sole and exclusive remedy for employees who suffer injuries at work.[3] However, Shirvanyan argued that her major depression was not a derivative injury from her wrist or shoulder injuries and instead occurred because of the treatment she received from her employer.

Analysis

Under FEHA, people who have qualifying disabilities or medical conditions have rights against disability discrimination. Employers must do several things, including engaging in an interactive process, after an employee has requested accommodations to figure out whether any reasonable accommodations can be offered to help the employee perform the tasks of his or her job.

The District argued that a plaintiff must identify a reasonable accommodation that would have been available at the time during which an employer should have begun an interactive process to succeed on that type of claim and cited several cases supporting that liability could only be found if a plaintiff identified a reasonable accommodation. Shirvanyan argued that the case law was split on this point and cited two cases. However, the appeals court found that the cases Shirvanyan cited did not disagree with the other cases. While employees are not required to identify all possible reasonable accommodations that were available, they must identify specific accommodations that might have been available for their injuries.

The court then looked at the evidence that Shirvanyan presented about available accommodations for her injuries, first considering her wrist and the carpal tunnel syndrome she developed in 2014. It found that she had presented substantial evidence that reasonable accommodations were available for her wrist injury in the form of a finite leave of absence. However, it did not find that she presented substantial evidence about available accommodations for her shoulder injury. Her shoulder injury was severe enough that she was still unable to return to work two years later at the time of her trial, and a leave of absence or restructuring her job would not have worked to accommodate her injuries.

The court then considered the District's argument that the Workers' Compensation Act precluded Shirvanyan's ability to recover damages under FEHA for emotional distress. The District argued that since her major depression derived from her shoulder injury, it should have fallen under her prior workers' compensation claim. However, the appeals court found that the Workers' Compensation Act did not preclude Shirvanyan from seeking compensation for her emotional distress. It found that her emotional distress damages did not derive from her wrist injury.

Conclusion

The court reversed the verdict in the trial court. It dismissed Shirvanyan's interactive process and reasonable accommodations claims for her shoulder injury. However, it sent the case back to the trial court for a new trial on Shirvanyan's reasonable accommodations and interactive process claims for her wrist injury.

Get help from an experienced employment lawyer

If your employer failed to engage in an interactive process to identify reasonable accommodations for your disabling condition, you may have legal rights. Contact an experienced employment lawyer at Steven M. Sweat, APC today by calling 866.966.5240.

Sources

[1] Shirvanyan v. Los Angeles Community College District

[2] Article 1. Unlawful Practices, Generally [12940 - 12953]

[3] Chapter 3. Conditions of Compensation Liability [3600 - 3605]

[4] Disability Discrimination

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