Kamali v. California Department of Transportation, No. B247756 (March 17, 2015): In an unpublished opinion, the California Court of Appeal recently upheld a jury’s verdict finding the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) liable for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation and failure to engage in the interactive process.
Khosrow Kamali had worked for several years as a civil engineer in Caltrans’ Office of Traffic Investigation. Beginning in 2007, Kamali made several requests to be transferred to another Caltrans department as a result of work-related stress, depression, and anxiety, but his requests were denied. Kamali claimed that much of his stress was caused by the acts of his supervisor, Office Chief Sameer Haddadeen. In early 2007, Kamali contacted Haddadeen’s supervisor and requested a transfer to another Caltrans office after a dispute during which Haddadeen raised his voice at Kamali. After several meetings regarding the incident, and after Kamali had taken leave from work to deal with his increasing anxiety, the transfer request was denied. Kamali then sent an email to the next highest person in the chain of command renewing his request for a transfer. However, he still did not receive a transfer. Shortly thereafter, another employee that had complained about Haddadeen was granted a transfer to another department.
In 2008, Kamali’s department was reorganized, and he was placed under another direct supervisor. He again requested a transfer, but did not receive one. In 2009, Kamali continued making his requests for a transfer, this time filing a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) and presenting a doctor’s note stating that a transfer was required due to his stress-related mental disability. Later that year, he filed another complaint with the DFEH relating to Caltrans’s refusal to grant the transfer.
In 2010, Kamali was approved for a leave of absence on medical grounds for one year. Upon his return in 2011, Kamali submitted another letter from his doctor stating that he was unable to work with the supervisors in his department, but that “Mr. Kamali’s medical condition does not prevent him from working for any supervisor.” Kamali requested that he be allowed to telecommute and only come to the workplace when needed for meetings or “business necessity.” Kamali’s request to telecommute was denied, and he was placed with another supervisor. However, he was not transferred from the department. Kamali then filed a lawsuit against Caltrans, alleging failure to provide a reasonable accommodation and failure to engage in the interactive process (among other claims).
The case went to trial, and the jury found in Kamali’s favor. On appeal, Caltrans argued that Kamali did not suffer from a mental disability, but rather, only wanted a different supervisor. Caltrans relied on a 1996 federal case, Weiler v. Household Fin. Corp., decided by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. There, the court concluded that where an employee was only unable to perform her job for one supervisor, but could do the work for other supervisors, the employee was not “‘disabled’” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Kamali court rejected Caltrans’ argument, explaining that this is one of the instances in which California law affords “additional protections” over and above those provided under federal law. The court noted that under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), a mental disability is defined as one “that limits a major life activity,” which differs from the stricter ADA definition of a mental disability as one that “‘substantially limits’” a person from participating in major life activities.
The court also rejected Caltrans’s policy arguments that “upholding the jury’s verdict would send a message that any employee who does not like his or her supervisor can merely get a doctor’s note that the employee was suffering stress from the supervisor and needed a new transfer.” The court stated that, “[w]hile certainly there can be abuses of FEHA under any scenario, in this case there was substantial evidence that Kamali suffered from severe depression and anxiety that prevented him from performing his work, that was triggered in part by the actions of his supervisors.”
The court was also unimpressed with Caltrans’s argument that it satisfied any duty it had to provide a reasonable accommodation to Kamali by allowing him to take extended leaves of absence—totaling 615 work days—while keeping his job open. The court explained that in this situation, where Kamali had asked for a specific accommodation that could have alleviated his condition, the leave of absence was insufficient to address his needs. “Kamali’s doctor wrote to his  managers that a transfer was all he needed to work effectively.” In taking his leaves of absence, “Kamali lost wages, benefits and sick pay for his 615 leave days. He would not have suffered those losses if his request to transfer  had been facilitated.”
According to Lara de Leon, a shareholder in the Orange County office of Ogletree Deakins, “the Kamali case serves as a reminder to employers that in certain circumstances stress, depression, and anxiety arising from an employee’s work environment can constitute a disability and trigger the protections of FEHA. It also exemplifies that delays in implementing any accommodation can create exposure, as can employer’s inability to demonstrate that it actively engaged in the interactive process.” To avoid liability, employers should ensure that they have protocols in place to carefully review and document requests for accommodation, including those based on mental disability, and implement an appropriate interactive process to assess and address these requests.