Employer’s mistaken belief leads to discrimination claim

Federal law and most states forbid employers from discriminating against workers based on disability, meaning it’s illegal to fire, demote or refuse to hire someone because of their disability if they can do the job with reasonable accommodations. Generally, a worker claiming disability discrimination needs to show “animus.” That means they need to show an employer’s decision was based on prejudicial attitudes or ill will towards people with disabilities. But a recent California case should serve as warning to employers that courts may punish them for sloppiness, too, even if there was no intent to discriminate.

In that case, a sales rep for a large drug company developed an eye condition and could no longer drive to visit clients. He went on medical leave and asked to be moved to a position that didn’t require driving. His request apparently got caught up in corporate bureaucracy, and over the next six months the employee sent numerous emails to HR and applied for a number of internal positions, but heard nothing in response. A temp in the benefits department then mistakenly determined that he had transitioned from short-term to long-term disability and could no longer work at all and, misreading a company policy, notified him he was terminated. At no point had the employee requested long-term disability benefits. After desperately and unsuccessfully trying to correct the situation, he filed suit alleging disability discrimination.

The employer tried to get the case thrown out, arguing that the employee had no legal claim. After all, the employer argued, it showed no “animus” (discriminatory intent), and the temp miscategorized him in good faith, albeit mistakenly. A trial judge agreed, but the California Court of Appeal reversed the decision. The court decided that even without ill intent, the employee shouldn’t have to pay for the temp’s mistake.

If you’re concerned that your own internal procedures leave you vulnerable to mistakes that could result in lawsuits, you should consult with a labor and employment attorney to help you address such vulnerabilities.

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