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California Appeals Court Expands Reasonable Accommodation Requirement Beyond Qualified Individuals with a Disability

May 23, 2002

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), employers are not obligated to accommodate disabled applicants or employees who, even with accommodation, would be unable to perform the essential functions of the position in question. A California appellate court has ruled that the California law that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of disability (as well as various other characteristics), the Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"), does not contain that same limitation. See Bagatti v. Department of Rehabilitation, 97 Cal. App. 4th 344 (2002).

In Bagatti, the employee sued the employer alleging a failure to reasonably accommodate her disability in violation of the FEHA. The employee suffered from severe polio and related complications, which restricted her mobility. She requested that the employer provide her with motorized transportation from her car to her workstation and motorized transportation around her work site. She also requested that hand rails or chairs be placed around the work site. The employer (ironically, the California agency responsible for assisting disabled individuals with issues concerning employment and independent living) denied her request. Instead, her supervisor suggested to the employee and her co-workers that she "should just retire."

The trial court dismissed the case but the employee appealed, contending among other things that the trial court erred in applying the EEOC's interpretive guidelines to FEHA claims. Under those guidelines, in order to state a claim under the ADA, the individual must be able to show that his or her request for an accommodation falls into one of the following categories: (1) accommodations that are required to ensure equal opportunity in the application process; (2) accommodations that enable the employer's employees with disabilities to perform the essential functions of the position held or desired; and (3) accommodations that enable the employer's employees with disabilities to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by employees without disabilities." 29 C.F.R. 1630, appendix to Section 1630.2(o) (1996). In Bagatti, the employer argued that none of these three circumstances were present - i.e., that the employee could not allege denial of equal rights or privileges in the application process, that she could not perform the essential functions of the job, and or that she did not enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.

In addition, under the ADA, in order to be entitled to an accommodation, the employee must be a "qualified individual" capable of performing the essential functions of the job (as required by 42 U.S.C. ยง 12112) and must have suffered an adverse employment action prior to asserting any claims. The employer in Bagatti also argued that neither of these circumstances were present.

Regarding the applicability of the EEOC interpretive guidelines, the Court noted that, while federal regulations "may be 'useful' to guide the construction of the FEHA where the state statute or an interpretive state regulation are modeled on the ADA," that principle was inapplicable because of the marked differences between the ADA and FEHA with respect to reasonable accommodation.

Instead, the Court found that "th[e] interpretive statement of the EEOC, interpreting the [ADA] should not be applied to California's FEHA." As stated by the Court, "the duty to make reasonable accommodation does not require that an employee be a 'qualified individual with a disability' as does the federal statute. Rather, subdivision (m) of section 12940 [the FEHA provision which requires reasonable accommodation] applies simply to 'an applicant or employee'."

This is not the first time California has imposed obligations on employers beyond those required by the ADA. See, e.g., California Law Broadens Protections for Disabled Employees and Applicants (November 10, 2000). This latest decision further complicates the already difficult process of attempting to identify reasonable accommodations. While the appellate court paid lip service to this concern, recognizing that its decision "will leave employers uncertain with respect to when they must provide reasonable accommodation," it left it to subsequent decisions to provide that clarification. Adding to the confusion is the fact that this decision, out of California's Third Appellate District (23 counties in Central California, including Sacramento and San Joaquin Counties), contradicts decisions from Second Appellate District (covering the Los Angeles area).

The only clear lesson from this decision is that employers with operations in California must be especially careful in addressing requests for accommodations. It is not enough to act in accordance with the ADA. The FEHA contains distinct requirements of which employers must also be mindful. Failure to account for these distinct state law requirements can expose the employer to significant liability.