Why it matters

How should a California trial court properly instruct a jury regarding an employer's intent to discriminate against a disabled defendant and what role does animus play in the instruction? This question was at the heart of a recent decision from a California appellate court involving a county employee who sued after he was removed from his job as a bailiff and placed on an unpaid leave of absence. He claimed the County's incorrect assessment that he could not safely perform his duties, even with reasonable accommodation, constituted disability discrimination. The trial court instructed the jury that proof of employer animus or ill will towards the employee was required. Accordingly, language was included in the instructions that jurors needed to find that the employer took the actions it did with the intent to discriminate against the employee based on a perceived disability. The appellate court, however, reversed. The plaintiff could prove discriminatory intent by showing that his actual or perceived disability was a "substantial motivating factor/reason" for the employer's decision to place him on a leave of absence, the court said, even if the employer's mistake was reasonable and made in good faith. Because the jury instruction actually given was prejudicial, the panel remanded the claim for a new trial.

Detailed discussion

The County of Stanislaus hired Dennis Wallace in 1997 as a deputy sheriff. Ten years later, he injured his left knee and filed a workers' compensation claim for the injury. He later reinjured the same knee on the job, requiring surgery in 2008. Wallace took a paid leave of absence after the surgery and subsequently returned to light duty.

The following year he took additional paid leave because of the knee injury and returned to a light-duty assignment in the property and evidence room with restrictions on climbing, running, and walking on uneven ground. After a few months, Wallace took another paid leave because of his knee.

Wallace returned again, this time working as a bailiff. The County requested Wallace to undergo a medical exam with an orthopedic surgeon, who issued a report containing numerous limitations on activity. In response, county officials met with Wallace to discuss looking at other positions that could better accommodate his work restrictions and removed him from his assignment as a bailiff.

Wallace insisted that he could perform the functions of a bailiff and was only interested in positions providing certain retirement benefits. The County, however, placed Wallace on an unpaid leave of absence. Wallace thereafter filed suit alleging violations of California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) based on disability discrimination, failure to accommodate his disability, failure to engage in the interactive process, and failure to prevent discrimination.

At trial the parties disagreed over how to instruct the jury on the disability discrimination claim. The trial court told counsel that it read the case law as requiring employee plaintiffs to "prove that the actions taken by the employer were done with the intent to discriminate," which the court equated with "animus." The judge proposed modifying the instruction to read that "the County took the action in order to discriminate against the plaintiff."

Wallace's attorney disagreed with the proposed language, while counsel for the employer supported it, arguing that intent and animus have to be shown in any discrimination cause of action alleging disparate treatment (i.e., intentional discrimination). The court sided with the employer and modified the jury instruction to include the language it had proposed.

The appellate panel reversed, finding that the instruction given was incorrect and prejudicial. The proper standard regarding employer intent or motivation in discrimination actions was set forth in a 2013 decision from the California Supreme Court in Harris v. City of Santa Monica, the court explained.

"Under Harris, Wallace could prove the requisite discriminatory intent by showing his actual or perceived disability was a 'substantial motivating factor/reason' for County's decision to place him on a leave of absence," the court said. "California law does not require an employee with an actual or perceived disability to prove that the employer's adverse employment action was motivated by animosity or ill will against the employee. Instead, California's statutory scheme protects employees from an employer's erroneous or mistaken beliefs about the employee's physical condition. In short, the Legislature decided that the financial consequences of an employer's mistaken belief that an employee is unable to safely perform a job's essential functions should be borne by the employer, not the employee, even if the employer's mistake was reasonable and made in good faith."

Pursuant to California law, it is unlawful for an employer "to discriminate against" an employee "because of" the employee's physical disability. The phrase "because of" is ambiguous as to the type or level of an employer's intent and the connection between that motivation and the decision to treat the disabled person differently, the panel wrote.

The court in Harris discussed the employer's motivation and the link between consideration of the plaintiff's physical condition and the adverse employment action without using the terms "animus," "animosity," or "ill will," the appellate panel wrote. "The absence of a discussion of these terms necessarily implies an employer can violate [the statute] by taking an adverse employment action against an employee 'because of' the employee's physical disability even if the employer harbored no animosity or ill will against the employee or the class of persons with that disability," the court said.

"Based on Harris, we conclude that an employer has treated an employee differently 'because of' a disability when the disability is a substantial motivating reason for the employer's decision to subject the employer to an adverse employment action," the panel concluded.

Prejudice occurred in Wallace's case with the use of the improper instruction, the court said. And "the evidence easily demonstrates a reasonable probability that a properly instructed jury would have found Wallace's disability was a substantial motivating reason for County's decision to remove him from his job as bailiff," the panel held. "Indeed, the evidence allows this court to find as a matter of law that Wallace established the substantial-motivating-reason element of his disability discrimination cause of action."

The panel remanded the case for a trial on the limited issues of the amount of Wallace's economic damages and the existence and amount of noneconomic damages (including emotional distress and mental suffering) caused by the employer's decision to place him on a leave of absence.

To read the opinion in Wallace v. County of Stanislaus, click here.