The California Court of Appeal recently affirmed summary judgment in favor of an employer, thus dismissing the employee’s disability discrimination and breach of contract claims.
The California Court of Appeal recently affirmed summary judgment in favor of an employer, thus dismissing the employee’s disability discrimination and breach of contract claims. See King v. United Parcel Service (May 23, 2007, ordered published June 23, 2007).
In this case, King had worked for UPS for nearly 30 years when he was discharged for violating the company’s integrity rules when he allegedly asked a subordinate to falsify a timecard to bring it into compliance with federal regulations limiting driving time. King denied the misconduct and claimed he was terminated because of his disability, since he was discharged less than two months after returning from a four-month disability leave of absence. King also claimed that the investigation conducted regarding his termination was faulty and, thus, his termination was not for good cause and in bad faith.
The court of appeal held that King had not presented sufficient evidence to support his claim that his termination was discriminatorily motivated. One of King’s claims was that UPS had failed to provide reasonable accommodation for his alleged disability. Significantly, the court held that an employee claiming to be disabled cannot expect his employer to be clairvoyant with regard to the accommodations offered to the employee. As the court noted: “The employee can’t expect the employer to read his mind and know how he secretly wanted a particular accommodation and sue the employer for not providing it.” Indeed, an employer cannot be held liable for not accommodating a disability of which it had no knowledge. Further, the court held that King was obliged “to tender a specific request for a necessary accommodation.”
The court also held that the finding that the termination was not discriminatory was dispositive of King’s claim for breach of contract, as King failed to establish that the termination decision was made in bad faith. Specifically, the court held that good cause, in the context of implied employment contracts, means “fair and honest reasons, regulated by good faith on the part of the employer, that are not trivial, arbitrary or capricious, unrelated to business needs or goals, or pretextual.” Because King was unable to present evidence that his termination was pretextual, the court affirmed the dismissal of this claim as well. In fact, the court noted that even if the company’s decision to terminate King was a mistake, it was made in good faith, since UPS honestly believed the reasons for the termination.
Employers' Bottom Line:
This decision is significant for employers on various levels. First, it establishes how vital it is for an employer to engage in good faith, unbiased investigations prior to discharging employees for misconduct. In this case, even though the court recognized that the employer’s decision to discharge the employee might have been wrong, the court credited the employer due to the good-faith nature of the investigation. Employers must remember that each investigation is potential evidence in a lawsuit by the person being investigated.
Second, the court provided employers with important guidance and assistance in dealing with employees in need of accommodations. While providing employers with the benefit of not being required to be “clairvoyant” in determining whether, and to what extent, a disabled employee must be accommodated, it did reinforce the importance of the interactive process in making those determinations.
Should you have any questions regarding conducting workplace investigations, addressing issues of accommodation in the workplace, or any other employment law issue, please contact the Ford & Harrison attorney with whom you usually work or the author of this Alert, Helene Wasserman, in Ford & Harrison's Los Angeles office, at (213) 237-2403.
Helene is the host of the Employer Helpcast, which is a "one stop website" for both "nuts and bolts" employment law advice and insight into new legal developments affecting employers. The Employer Helpcast can be found at http://employerhelpcast.blip.tv.