The County of Stanislaus hired Dennis Wallace as a deputy sheriff in December 1997. In October 2007, Wallace injured his left knee and filed a workers' compensation claim. He later reinjured his knee and was treated by Dr. Jonathan Cohen. Wallace had knee surgery on September 9, 2008. After the surgery, Wallace took a paid leave of absence under Labor Code section 4850 until December 15, 2008, when he returned to light duty status.

Wallace took additional paid leave for his knee injury from January through April 2009. In May 2009, he delivered a report by Dr. Pedram Vaezi which listed applicable work restrictions. Wallace then began a light duty assignment in the property and evidence room with the work restrictions of limited climbing, limited walking on uneven ground, and limited running. Wallace took another leave of absence in September 2009. His 4850 leave was exhausted as of March 12, 2010.

On April 1, 2010, Wallace delivered a copy of a supplemental report from Dr. Vaezi containing updated restrictions for his knee. The restrictions included: (1) no prolonged walking in excess of 30-45 minutes without a five-minute break; (2) no walking on uneven ground in excess of 30 minutes without a five-minute break; and (3) no prolonged standing in excess of 30-45 minutes without a five-minute break.

On April 9, 2010, Wallace agreed to a written offer from the County to place him in a bailiff assignment for at least 12 months at his pre-injury rate of pay. The offer referred to the bailiff assignment as permanent modified duty.

In October 2010, Wallace's work restrictions expanded to include no lifting of more than 50 pounds, no repetitive shoulder work, no weight bearing more than 75% of the time and no forceful pushing or pulling. The County determined that there was no available modified or alternative work available that could accommodate the expanded restrictions. However, the County did not ask Wallace's supervisors if he was able to perform the bailiff position.

In January 2011, Wallace attended a meeting with County representatives, including Human Resources consultant Brandi Welsh, to discuss his work restrictions. The County informed Wallace that it was removing him from his bailiff position and that it had not identified any assignment as deputy sheriff that could accommodate his work restrictions. Welsh and Wallace met again later in January to determine whether Wallace wanted to consider any other County positions. Wallace stated he was only interested in positions with safety retirement.

Wallace then sued the County for disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, failure to engage in the interactive process, and failure to prevent discrimination under Government Code section 12940. The case proceeded to trial where the jury found that the County had not committed disability discrimination, but deadlocked on the other three claims. Both sides then filed motions for summary adjudication and the trial court dismissed Wallace's claim for failure to prevent discrimination. The remaining claims proceeded to a second trial and the jury found in favor of the County on all of Wallace's remaining claims.

Wallace appealed on the ground that the first jury had found against him on his disability discrimination claim due to an erroneous jury instruction involving the element of discriminatory intent. The instruction stated that Wallace was required to prove the County regarded or treated him as having a disability in order to discriminate and such wrongful discrimination was a motivating reason for the adverse employment action. The special verdict form had asked if the County had regarded or treated Wallace as having a physical disability in order to discriminate. The jury answered "no" and the discrimination claim was resolved in favor of the County. Wallace challenged the jury instruction, claiming it should not have mentioned an employer's intent to discriminate, which the trial court equated with having to show "animus" on the part of the employer. The County argued that intent or animus needs to be shown in any discrimination case, including disability discrimination cases.

The Court of Appeal analyzed disability discrimination claims under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and determined that disability claims are fundamentally different from discrimination claims brought on other protected classifications under FEHA such as race, age or sex. For example, in most discrimination cases, there is no direct evidence that the employer took an adverse employment action against the employee because of race, religion, sex, etc. However, in disability cases, there is usually direct evidence that the employer took an adverse employment action against the employee because of the disability. Instead of litigating the employer's reasons for the adverse action, the disputes usually focus on whether the employee was able to perform the essential job functions, whether there were reasonable accommodations that would have allowed the employee to perform those functions, and whether a reasonable accommodation would have imposed an undue hardship on the employer.

Based upon this rationale, the Court held that, where an employee is found to be able to perform the essential duties of the job, a plaintiff alleging disability discrimination can establish the requisite employer intent to discriminate by proving: (1) the employer knew the plaintiff had a physical condition that limited a major life activity, or perceived him to have such a condition; and (2) the plaintiff's actual or perceived physical condition was a "substantial motivating reason" for the defendant's decision to subject the plaintiff to an adverse employment action. The Court also ruled that the trial court's use of the term "animus" or discriminatory intent in the jury instruction was erroneous.

The Court concluded by stating that "animus" is an imprecise term that can cause confusion when used in disability discrimination cases with direct evidence that the employer's motive for taking an adverse employment decision was the plaintiff's actual or perceived disability. To avoid this confusion, the Supreme Court urged courts to limit their use of the terms "animus" or "ill will" to employment discrimination cases involving proof of an illegitimate motive by circumstantial evidence. The Court reversed the trial court's decision and remanded the case back to the trial court to analyze the issue of damages on the disability discrimination claim.

NOTE:

The case may be important because it sets forth a legal standard of proof in disability discrimination claims that is different from other types of discrimination claims. The case relies on Harris v. City of Santa Monica (2013) 56 Cal.4th 203, to hold that the proper standard for a discrimination claim is to show that disability was a "substantial motivating reason" for the adverse actions. The Supreme Court also noted that the Harris decision did not use the terms "animus" or "ill will" and that the absence of these terms suggests that an employer can violate FEHA by taking adverse actions against an employee because of the employee's disability even if the employer harbored no animosity or ill will against the employee. The case potentially will make it more difficult for employers to have disability discrimination claims dismissed short of trial.

Wallace v. County of Stanislaus (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 109.