California Case Clarifies Obligation to Provide Reasonable Accommodation for Disabled Employee

558877The California Court of Appeal, in Nealy v. City of Santa Monica, recently provided insight about the extent of an employer’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to a disabled employee. Specifically, the Court addressed whether an employer is required to remove an “essential job function” as a reasonable accommodation.

Factual Background

The employee, Tony Nealy, worked for the City as a “solid waste equipment operator.” He suffered two work-related injuries, leaving him partially disabled. When the agreed medical examiner ultimately approved Nealy’s return to work, he stipulated that Nealy should be precluded from “kneeling, bending, stooping, squatting, walking over uneven terrain, running, and prolonged standing relative to the right knee, as well as climbing and heavy lifting.”

Nealy’s pre-injury job as a “solid waste equipment operator” requires workers be able to operate at least four different types of refuse collection vehicles, as well as refuse and recyclable collection/disposal duties, heavy lifting and equipment maintenance/inspection.

Nealy took the position that, even with his work restrictions, he could still work as a “solid waste equipment operator” if the job duties were altered in his case to limit his responsibility to a single refuse collection vehicle (automated side loader). When the City refused this suggestion, he sued, claiming disability discrimination and other theories.

Essential Function and Reasonable Accommodation

California law imposes on employers the obligation to make “reasonable accommodations” for known disabilities. “Reasonable accommodation” has been defined as “a modification or adjustment to the work environment that enables the employee to perform the essential functions of the job.” (Nadaf-Rahrov v. Neiman Marcus Grp., Inc., 166 Cal.App.4th 952, 974 (2008).)

An “essential function” of a given position has been defined as “the fundamental job duties of the employment position the individual with a disability holds or desires.” (Cal. Gov. Code §12926(f).) The City argued that the ability to operate multiple different refuse collection vehicles was an essential function of the job of “solid waste equipment operator” because (1) employees could be required to “fill-in” for one another, operating different vehicles, in the event of an absence; and (2) a natural disaster may dictate that larger vehicles than the automated side loader would be required to adequately clear debris.

Among the questions presented to the Court was whether the City’s duty to accommodate Nealy’s disability required it to eliminate an essential job function of a “solid waste equipment operator,” so that he would be required only to operate the automated side loader and not perform any of the other duties that fell outside his restrictions. Citing authorities, including Lui v. City and County of San Francisco, 211 Cal.App.4th 962, 985 (2012), and Dark v. Curry County, 451 F3d.1078, 1089 (9th Cir. 2006), the Court said no. Elimination of an essential function is not a reasonable accommodation of an employee’s disability.

Summary

Nealy v. City of Santa Monica is an unpublished opinion, which means it cannot be cited to a court as authority. However, it provides valuable insight into the extent of an employer’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to a disabled worker. Specifically, the case suggests reasonable accommodation does not require the elimination of an essential job function.

Employers facing questions of reasonable accommodation of an employee’s known disability would be wise to consult with their employment law counsel, to help reduce the likelihood of a violation of state and/or federal law.

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