Disability Discrimination

The April 2013 issue of Take 5 was written by David W. Garland,  Chair of Epstein Becker Green’s Labor and Employment Steering Committee and a Member of the Firm in the New York and Newark offices.

In it, he summarizes five recent labor and employment actions that employers should consider:

  1. EEOC Releases Letter Addressing Wellness Programs and Reasonable Accommodation Obligations
  2. Paying Interns May Not Be Enough to Stave Off Wage and Hour Claims
  3. House Committee Votes Out Bill Prohibiting NLRB from Acting Without a Quorum
  4. New York City Human Rights Law Expanded to Prohibit “Unemployment” Discrimination
  5. New Jersey May Become the Latest State Law Banning Employers from Requesting Social Media Passwords

Click here to read the full version on ebglaw.com

By Marisa S. Ratinoff and Amy Messigian

In a matter of first impression, the California Court of Appeal held last month that an employee who exhausts all permissible leave under the Pregnancy Disability Leave (“PDL”) provisions of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) and is terminated by her employer may nevertheless state a cause of action for discrimination.

In Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc., the plaintiff, a former employee of Swissport, alleged that she was diagnosed with a high risk pregnancy requiring bed rest in February 2009 and was due to give birth in October 2009. The plaintiff alleges that she made Swissport aware of her condition and need to remain on bed rest until after the birth of her child. However, with three months remaining in her pregnancy, the plaintiff was terminated by Swissport in July 2009 after exhausting her 4-month PDL entitlement as well as her accrued vacation. The plaintiff alleges that she would have been able to return to work shortly after October 2009 and that her employer never engaged in the interactive process in order to identify available accommodations, such as the extended leave of absence she had requested.

At the trial court level, Swissport challenged the lawsuit on the grounds that the plaintiff had exhausted her PDL entitlement and that no further leave was required. The trial court agreed and the plaintiff appealed. Reversing the decision, the Court of Appeal stated that an employee’s entitlements under PDL are supplemental to the general non-discrimination provisions of FEHA.

While an employer must provide 4 months of PDL to an employee disabled by pregnancy without regard to the hardship to the employer, its duty continues after PDL has been exhausted to engage in the interactive process with the employee to determine whether it may accommodate the disability. Continuing the leave of absence may be a possible accommodation if it will not be an undue hardship to the employer.

This case presents a cautionary tale to employers who base termination decisions simply on the exhaustion of a guaranteed leave entitlement under state or federal law. In all cases, where an employee exhausts their guaranteed leave entitlement but seeks to continue his or her leave of absence due to disability, employers should consider whether an extended leave of absence may be accommodated. If it will be difficult to accommodate an extended absence in the employee’s current position, an employer may also consider transferring the employee to a comparable vacant position and continuing his or her leave of absence from that position. Discussing available options with counsel is highly recommended.

By: Michael S. Kun

The latest wave of class actions in California is one alleging that employers have not complied with obscure requirements requiring the provision of “suitable seating” to employees – and that employees are entitled to significant penalties as a result.

The “suitable seating” provisions are buried so deep in Wage Orders that most plaintiffs’ attorneys were not even aware of them until recently.  Importantly, they do not require all employers to provide seats to all employees.  Instead, they provide that employers shall provide “suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.”

Because the “suitable seating” provisions were so obscure, there is scant case law or other analysis for employers to refer to in determining whether, when and how to provide seats to particular employees.  Among other things, the most important phrases in the provisions – “suitable seats” and “nature of the work” – are nowhere defined.  While those terms would seem to suggest that an employer’s goals and expectations must be taken into consideration – including efficiency, effectiveness and the image the employer wishes to project – plaintiffs’ counsel have not unexpectedly argued that such issues are irrelevant.  They have argued that if a job can be done while seated, a seat must be provided.

The first “suitable seating” case has gone to finally gone to trial in United States District Court for the Northern District of California.  The decision issued after a bench trial in Garvey v. Kmart Corporation is a victory for Kmart Corporation on claims that it unlawfully failed to provide seats to its cashiers at one of its California stores.  The decision sheds some light on the scope and meaning of the “suitable seating” provisions.  But it also may provide some guidance to plaintiffs’ counsel on arguments to make in future cases.

Addressing the “suitable seating” issue at Kmart’s Tulare, California store, the court rejected plaintiffs’ counsel’s arguments that Kmart was required to redesign its cashier and bagging areas in order to provide seats.  Importantly, the court recognized that Kmart has a “genuine customer-service rationale for requiring its cashiers to stand”:  “Kmart has every right to be concerned with efficiency – and the appearance of efficiency – of its checkout service.”  That concern is one likely shared by many employers.

In reaching its decision, the court expressed concern not only about safety, but also about the cashiers’ ability to project a “ready-to-assist attitude”: “Each time the cashier were to rise or sit, the adjustment exercise itself would telegraph a message to those in line, namely a message that the convenience of employees comes first.”  The court further explained, “In order to avoid inconviencing a seated cashier, moreover, customers might themselves feel obligated to move larger and bulkier merchandise along the counter, a task Kmart wants its cashiers to do in the interest of good customer service.”

While recognizing that image, customer service and efficiency goals must all be taken into consideration in determining whether seating must be provided, the court then appeared to provide some guidance to plaintiffs.  The court addressed the possibility that these issues could be addressed through the use of “lean-stools.”  Acknowledging that the use of “lean-stools” had not been developed at trial, the court invited arguments about them at the trial of “suitable seating” claims for the next Kmart store.  Thus, while expressly refusing to decide whether Kmart employees should have been provide “lean-stools,” the court may have provided plaintiffs’ counsel with an important argument to make in future trials.

And, as a result, employers in California – particularly in the hospitality and retail industries – should now be expected to address whether they could or should be providing “lean-stools” to employees whom they expect to stand during their jobs.