How a sick leave policy fell short of disability discrimination law
Mykyn Woods worked as a Senior Community Manager for Greystar Management Services, a property management company with offices all over the United States. Less than a year after she started working for Greystar, Woods was injured in a vehicle accident. She sustained herniated discs, and ruptures on her lumbar, thoracic and cervical spine.
Because of her serious injuries, Woods could not work her normal schedule of 8 hours per day on site, five days per week. She requested to work part time or to work from home.
Instead of finding the type of accommodation that will enable her to perform the essential tasks of the job despite her condition, the employer fired her. The employer informed Woods that under the company’s sick leave policy, Woods was entitled only to 6 unpaid weeks off work because she had not yet worked there for more than a year. The employer claimed it did not have a legal duty to accommodate her aside from giving her six weeks of unpaid leave.
Woods sued the employer for wrongful termination, disability discrimination, failure to reasonably accommodate, failure to engage in an interactive process and failure to take reasonable steps to prevent discrimination. Woods argued that she was not sick but that she was disabled. Therefore, under California laws, the employer had to provide reasonable accommodation for her disability, which it failed to do.
California law prohibits discrimination based on disability or medical condition. California law defines disability (whether mental or physical) as any disease, disorder, cosmetic disfigurement, anatomical loss, emotional or mental illness, or specific learning disabilities, which limits a major life activity. Working at a job is considered a major life activity.
The employer has a duty to provide reasonable accommodation to employees to enable them to work despite their disability. Depending on the employee’s specific restrictions and the employer’s circumstances, examples of reasonable accommodation include offering part-time or modified work schedules or reassigning to a vacant position.
Sometimes allowing the employee a temporary leave of absence may be a reasonable accommodation if, after the leave, the employee likely can resume his or her duties.
Additionally, if the employee can no longer perform the former job’s duties, offering a vacant position may be a reasonable accommodation, even if the position pays less than the disabled employee’s former job.
Unlike sick leave laws which provides sick leave depending on the employee’s length of employment, the duty to provide reasonable accommodation is triggered once 1) the employer knows of the disability; 2) the accommodation is reasonable; and 3) the accommodation will enable the employee to perform their essential job functions.
This means that a disabled employee may ask for reasonable accommodation after receiving a job offer, after acquiring a disability, or when the nature of the employee’s disability or job changes. (The employee is not required to request reasonable accommodation until after an employer has made a job offer or after the employee discovers that they need an accommodation to perform the job, which may be after they start working.)
After 5 days of trial and two hours of deliberation, the jury found in favor the employee on all causes of action, including punitive damages (Woods had argued to the jury that the employer’s witnesses lied and back-dated documents to try to justify the termination after she was already fired). The jury awarded her a total of $1,576,263 in damages.
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The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com. [For more than 25 years, C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is a past Presidential Awardee for Outstanding Filipino Overseas.]