The California Court of Appeals recently held that a San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) officer could not successfully bring disability claims under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) because he could not do physically strenuous tasks, which are essential functions of an officer’s job.
In Lui v. City and County of San Francisco, the plaintiff worked as a police officer for the SFPD. He suffered a serious heart attack, which left him unable to work in a position that required any physically strenuous work. Based on this restriction, SFPD told the plaintiff that there were no officer positions available to him that did not require physical duties. This forced the plaintiff to retire.
The plaintiff then brought various claims under the FEHA, which protects a person from unlawful employment practices. His complaint included disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, and failure to engage in a good faith process to determine a reasonable accommodation for an employee.
The FEHA requires an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees with disabilities, which is a modification to the workplace, for an employee with a known physical or mental disability. The FEHA also makes it unlawful for an employer to discharge or discriminate against a person for a physical or mental disability.
However, the prerequisite to bring these claim under the FEHA is that the employee must show that the employee can perform the essential functions of their job with or without a reasonable accommodation. These essential functions are the fundamental job duties of the position the person with the disability holds. Once it is determined that an employee is unable to complete the essential job functions, the employer is given much greater latitude in what actions they may take with regard to the employee.
The employer does not have to create a new job for the employee, promote the employee, or move another employee to open up a position for the disabled employee. Also, the employer does not have to exempt the employee from performing the essential duties of the job.
In Liu, the SFPD told the plaintiff that it did not have a position for him after it found that he could not do any strenuous tasks. The SFPD reasoned that the primary role of police officers is to enforce the law and protect public safety. To complete this role, officers must be able to engage in strenuous tasks and even officers in administrative positions are called out to protect the public at times.
The court agreed and held that based on the facts, it was a legitimate need of the SFPD to deploy officers in administrative positions when there are emergencies or mass gatherings. The SFPD also only had a limited number of full duty officers it could hire and each time the police department exempted someone from strenuous activities, it left the department with one less officer available to be deployed.
The Court of Appeals found that the SFPD acted lawfully when it told the plaintiff it did not have an officer position available to him due to the fact that the plaintiff could not perform the essential functions of an officer position. The plaintiff therefore lost each of the disability claims he brought against the SFPD.
How this affects your business:
An employer cannot simply label a task as an essential job duty but must also be able to support such a classification with sufficient evidence. The court in Lui held in favor of the SFPD after it did a very fact based analysis of the evidence offered. It found that the SFPD provided ample evidence that strenuous activities were indeed an essential function of the job for both in the field officers and administrative officers.
Lui is a reminder to all employers that they should limit their liability by ensuring that they draft detailed and accurate job descriptions, including what tasks are classified as an essential job function. If your company has experienced challenges creating job descriptions or handling disability claims, please contact us for further information at firstname.lastname@example.org.