Tuesday, July 28, 2015

It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: New CA Law Protects Right to Ask for Reasonable Accommodation Under California’s Anti-Discrimination Law

Governor Brow­­­­n recently signed into law Assembly Bill 987, overturning the wrong result in Rope v. Auto-Chlor System of Washington, Inc., 220 Cal. App. 4th 635 (2013), review denied (Jan. 29, 2014), and thereby ensuring that all Californians need not fear retaliation should they request a reasonable accommodation from their employer.

In Rope, the plaintiff sought to donate his kidney to his sister. Accordingly, he requested leave from his employer to undergo the transplant surgery and recover from the operation. After repeatedly ignoring Mr. Rope’s requests for leave, the employer eventually approved an unspecified amount of leave. However, only two months before the operation date, Mr. Rope’s employer fired him for allegedly poor performance. Importantly, Mr. Rope had received only positive performance reviews during his employment and had no disciplinary problems prior to his termination.

Mr. Rope filed suit asserting multiple claims including retaliation for requesting a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The trial court dismissed his lawsuit on demurrer, including the retaliation claim. Mr. Rope appealed.

To the dismay of worker advocates statewide, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Mr. Rope’s retaliation claim. The appellate court interpreted the retaliation provision under the FEHA to require that 1) an employee “engaged in activities in opposition to the employer at the time of the alleged retaliation,” and 2) the employer knew about it. Id. at 653. While the Court of Appeal acknowledged that the FEHA “encompasses a broad range of protected activity,” does not require that an employee “file a formal charge,” and that “[t]he determination as to what constitutes a protected activity is inherently fact driven,” the court nevertheless held that requesting a reasonable accommodation categorically is not “protected activity” under the FEHA. Id. at 652-653. The court did not interpret an employee’s request for reasonable accommodation as “opposition” to an employer. Id. at 652-53.

Other courts have reached different results in similar circumstances, noting that “[i]t would seem anomalous … to think Congress intended no retaliation protection for employees who request a reasonable accommodation unless they also file a formal charge. This would leave employees unprotected if an employer granted the accommodation and shortly thereafter terminated the employee in retaliation.” Shellenberger v. Summit Bancorp, Inc., 318 F.3d 183, 191 (3d Cir. 2003) (in the context of a lawsuit brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act). The Third Circuit’s concern was warranted, given the outcome in Rope.

Assembly Bill 987 corrects the anomalous result in Rope by ensuring that employees can request reasonable accommodations in the workplace without fear of retaliation. Employers should take notice that, separate from their duty to engage in the interactive process, they may not retaliate against an employee for requesting a reasonable accommodation.

If you believe your employer retaliated against you because you requested a reasonable accommodation, please contact Bryan Schwartz Law.

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