Don’t Treat Accommodation Requests Casually: the Importance of Considering Past Practices

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12/11/2017

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Don’t Treat Accommodation Requests Casually: The Importance of Considering Past Practices

 By: Anthony Oceguera

Most employers are aware that Federal and State law require that they provide reasonable accommodation to employees with disabilities.  However, employers frequently fail to realize just how employee-friendly the laws relating to reasonable accommodation are, and end up making personnel decisions that expose them to potential liability.  A recent California Court of Appeal decision, Atkins v. City of Los Angeles, serves as an important reminder of why it is critical that employers carefully consider their options when responding to requests for accommodation. 

In that case, Plaintiffs were police recruits with the Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”) who suffered injuries during training. Consistent with a longstanding practice, the injured Plaintiffs were assigned to light-duty administrative positions until their injuries healed or they were determined to be permanently disabled.  The LAPD later changed their policy, limiting the time that injured recruits could be in these light-duty positions to six months.  As a result of the change in policy, Plaintiffs were terminated. Plaintiffs filed suit, alleging that the LAPD failed to provide them reasonable accommodation when it refused to allow them to remain in the light-duty positions.

The LAPD argued that it had no obligation to offer the police recruits reassignment because they were not qualified for the position of a police officer, having not completed Academy training or the required probationary field assignments.  The Court rejected this argument, holding that the key question is whether the probationary employee can establish that he or she can perform the essential functions of the position to which reassignment is sought, as opposed to the job (police officer) they had been training for when injured.  In this case, there was no dispute that the recruits had been performing the job functions adequately when the LAPD decided to eliminate the light-duty positions.

In further defense of its actions, the LAPD also argued that requiring the LAPD to assign the police recruits to the light-duty administrative positions until their injuries healed or they were determined to be permanently disabled was unreasonable under the law. The Court disagreed.  State law requires employers to offer employees comparable or lower graded vacant positions when a disabled employee requests reassignment as an accommodation. While the law does not require an employer make a temporary assignment permanent or create a new position, the Court explained that to the extent an employer’s policies or practices indicate such accommodations are reasonable, an employer may violate the law if they do not make those accommodations available to all employees. Because the LAPD had a longstanding practice of allowing injured recruits to remain in the administrative positions indefinitely until they healed and could return to the Academy, or until their disabilities became permanent, the LAPD could not deny the same accommodation to Plaintiffs, who entered the light-duty positions prior to change in policy. 

Importantly, the Court made clear that the LAPD’s revised policy was not per se unlawful, and that any recruits injured after the policy change would not be entitled to an indefinite reassignment to the administrative positions. The problem here was that the policy was changed after the Plaintiffs had already been reassigned to the light-duty positions.

COUNSEL TO MANAGEMENT:

There is perhaps nothing more challenging for Employers than dealing with employees who have work restrictions due to injuries or disabilities and are requesting accommodation. As the Atkins case demonstrates, an employer’s past practices will be taken into consideration by a Court when evaluating the reasonableness of a requested accommodation.  Employers who are unsure whether or not a requested accommodation is reasonable, or who have questions regarding the effects of changing their reasonable accommodation policies, are advised to seek legal counsel.  If you have questions regarding your legal obligations when faced with an accommodation request, please contact the experts at The Saqui Law Group.  

 

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