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Workers Comp Board Decision Not Res Judicata on California Employment Claim

Disability discrimination is illegal in California under both Cal. Lab. Code section 132a and the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). People can file claims under both of these laws. Recently, the Court of Appeal found that a decision in a section 132a claim does not bar someone from pursuing separate disability discrimination claims under FEHA in the case of Kaur v. Foster Poultry Farms, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. F081786.

Factual and Procedural Background

Gurdip Kaur was employed at Foster Poultry Farms from 2001 to 2016 and worked as a yield monitor for the company at a chicken processing plant from 2008 to 2016. In 2013, Kaur slipped and fell at work while wearing the company-issued rubber boots and broke her wrist. Before the incident, she had asked her supervisor for new boots because hers were slippery. Kaur was required to wear the boots the company provided while she was working.

On the day of her accident, Kaur slipped at 8:30 am and asked her supervisor for new boots. Her supervisor told her to go to the supply room to get new boots. However, Rosa, the woman in charge of the supply room, told her she couldn't have new boots because hers were only six months old. Later, Kaur slipped again and prevented herself from falling by grabbing onto a coworker. She asked Joseph Wendy, another supervisor, for new boots. Wendy went to the supply room to get new boots for Kaur but was told by Rosa that there weren't any boots available in Kaur's size. Kaur believed that was a lie because Rosa hadn't told her that earlier when she had asked.

Four hours later, Kaur slipped and fell, breaking her left wrist. Kaur is from India, and she reported that she routinely had trouble getting supplies from Rosa. Rosa allegedly also failed to give supplies to other Indian employees but didn't do so with workers who were not from India. Kaur complained about Rosa to the labor relations manager for the company, Victor Moreno. He told Kaur that there was a problem with Rosa and that they should try to get their supplies from someone else. However, the workers needed to get supplies several times per day and often did not have anyone else to ask.

After her fall, Kaur had surgery on her wrist. She returned to work in June 2013 with restrictions for using her left hand and wrist, including no heavy lifting, pushing, pulling, or pinching with her left hand and wrist. However, her job duties were not modified. She complained to her supervisor and asked for modifications. However, her supervisor, Vang, told her that if she couldn't do her work, she should quit. Kaur then complained to Victor Moreno, who told her he would handle it. Later, Vang told her to let Vang know if she had any problems and moved a heavy bin for her. However, Vang didn't help her after that and continually ignored Kaur's requests for accommodations. On Dec. 27, 2013, Vang fired Kaur for violating her lunch break and claimed she had video evidence. However, she refused to show Kaur the video. After Kaur filed a complaint with her union, she was reinstated in March 2014.

Foster Farms restructured its company in June 2016 and announced it was laying off 55 workers from the Cherry St. plant where Kaur worked and adding 300 workers to its Belgravia plant, which was four miles away. Moreno told her she was losing her job at the Cherry St. plant and couldn't take a yield monitor position at the Belgravia plant because others with more seniority had already chosen those positions. He told her that the only position available that she could do with her restrictions at the Belgravia plant was working as a pallet jack driver.

Kaur knew that being a pallet jack driver would require her to use both hands. She told Moreno that she couldn't perform that job with only one hand. He asked her to list some positions that she could do, and she listed seven. He then told her that the only option for her was the pallet jack driver position and did not review any of the other available openings with her. He offered to place her in training for the pallet jack driver job, but he acknowledged in a deposition that the job duties wouldn't work with her restrictions. She turned down the position and was terminated on July 22, 2016. Moreno told her that she was being terminated for turning down the pallet jack driver job. When he was deposed, he claimed he believed the company had done all that it was required to accommodate her disability by offering her the pallet jack driver position.

Kaur filed a 132a action with the Workers Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) on Oct. 24, 2016. She subsequently filed a complaint for disability discrimination and race discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) on Feb. 22, 2017. On July 9, 2019, the administrative law judge who handled the three-day hearing on her 132a complaint denied her complaint. Foster Farms then filed a motion for summary judgment in her FEHA discrimination case and argued that the case was estopped by the ALJ's decision in the WCAB. Kaur filed an appeal.

Issue: Was it proper for the trial court to grant summary judgment based on the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board's denial of an action?

On appeal, Kaur argued that the trial court erred by determining that the WCAB's decision was res judicata for her FEHA discrimination claims. She also argued that the trial court erred by determining that Foster Farms had met its burden of proof for summary judgment.

Rule: A WCAB decision under Cal. Labor Code 132a does not preclude discrimination complaints under FEHA.

Cal. Lab. Code 132a broadly prohibits discrimination in the workplace and has been interpreted to prohibit discrimination based on an industrial accident. Under this statute, it is a misdemeanor for employers to discriminate against employees who have filed workers' compensation claims or who have threatened to do so. However, a decision denying an employee's 132a claim does not preclude discrimination claims under FEHA in court.

Analysis

The Court of Appeal first looked at section 132a and noted that it has been interpreted to forbid discrimination against employees who have been injured while working on the job. In her section 132a claim before the WCAB, Kaur claimed she was injured in the course and scope of her employment and that Foster Farms was aware of her injury. She also argued that the company intentionally discriminated against her based on her injury and her claim for workers' compensation benefits. The ALJ found that Kaur failed to show that she was discriminated against based on her injury and that Foster Farms' termination of her was reasonable and constituted a business necessity because of the company's restructuring process.

The court then looked at Kaur's FEHA claims. Under FEHA, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee based on the employee's race, national origin, disability, ancestry, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, gender expression, or military or veteran status. Employers can be liable under FEHA when they discriminate against employees or applicants based on their protected characteristics. FEHA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities and to engage in an interactive process with them when they request accommodations. However, an employer doesn't have to provide accommodations to an employee when doing so would create an undue hardship for the company. Under FEHA, it doesn't matter what caused an employee's disability or where it occurred unlike section 132a.

When a party seeks summary judgment, it has the initial burden to show that the non-moving party can't prove one or more elements of their claims. To prove disability discrimination under FEHA, a plaintiff must show that they have a disability, could perform the essential tasks of their job with or without accommodations, and suffered an adverse employment action because of their disability. Kaur argued that the company failed to reasonably accommodate her by refusing to transfer her to an open job that she could perform. When an employee argues that being transferred to an open position that she could do despite her condition, the employer has the burden to show that there is no triable issue of material fact that the employee could perform the job when it would not amount to a promotion.

It is illegal for an employer to fail to provide reasonable accommodations to a disabled employee that would not create an undue hardship for their business. To prove a claim for failing to provide reasonable accommodations, the plaintiff must show that they have a disability, they are qualified for the position, and the employer failed to provide reasonable accommodations. Courts have found that an employer's duty to reasonably accommodate an employee with a disability includes transferring them to open positions that they could perform with or without accommodations.

Collateral estoppel bars the relitigation of issues that have already been decided in a prior case. However, it will be precluded only if the issue is identical to the prior case, and the decision must be final and on the merits. The court found that Kaur's discrimination claims under FEHA were not identical to the issues decided in her section 132a action and that the trial court's order granting summary judgment was made in error.

Conclusion

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's order and returned the case for further proceedings.

Talk to an Experienced Employment Lawyer in Los Angeles

If your employer discriminated against you based on a disability or failed to provide reasonable accommodations, you might be entitled to pursue a disability discrimination claim. Contact an employment lawyer at the law firm of Steven M. Sweat, APC today for a free consultation at 866-966-5240.

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