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Monday, March 21, 2016

Wallace v. County of Stanislaus: Disability Discrimination Plaintiff Need not Prove Employer's Animus or Ill Will

Wallace v. County of Stanislaus (Cal.App. 2/25/16) considers "how to instruct a jury on the employer’s intent to discriminate against a disabled employee and, more specifically, what role 'animus' plays in defining that intent." 

Sheriff's Deputy Dennis Wallace sued the County of Stanislaus for disability discrimination after it placed him on an unpaid leave of absence based on its belief that he could not safely perform his duties as a bailiff with or without accommodation. 

The case went to trial prior to the California Supreme Court's decision in Harris v. City of Santa Monica (2013) 56 Cal.4th 203. The trial court modified the then-current version of California Civil Jury Instruction (CACI) No. 2540 to include a requirement that Wallace prove the County regarded or treated him “as having a disability in order to discriminate.” They jury found as follows: (1) the County treated Wallace as disabled; (2) Wallace was able to perform his essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) the County failed to prove Wallace could not safely perform those functions; but (4) County did not regard or treat Wallace as disabled "in order to discriminate." The trial court entered judgment for the County, and Wallace appealed. 

The Court of Appeal reversed, holding as follows: 

Where there is only circumstantial evidence of an employer's discriminatory motive, proof of motive follows the three-step burden-shifting McDonnell Douglas test. However, disability discrimination cases often involve "direct evidence of the role of the employee’s actual or perceived disability in the employer’s decision to implement an adverse employment action." In disability discrimination cases, courts should not "automatically apply" McDonnell Douglas, but should "determine whether there is direct evidence that the motive for the employer’s conduct was related to the employee’s physical or mental condition." 

Disability cases differ from other discrimination cases because California's definitions of physical disability, mental disability, and medical condition are broad and are intended to protect employees from discrimination based on actual or perceived disability. Further, the law protects employees "erroneously or mistakenly believed" to have a disability. 

Under Harris, an employer discriminates against an employee because of a disability when the disability is a substantial motivating reason for the employer’s decision to subject the employer to an adverse employment action. An employee need not demonstrate that the employer had any discriminatory animus; only that the employee's disability was a substantial motivating factor in the adverse employment action decision. 

A plaintiff who meets the substantial motivating factor test need not show any additional animus. The Court emphasized that the term "animus" is vague and should not be used in disability discrimination cases with "direct evidence that the employer’s motive for taking an adverse employment decision was the plaintiff’s actual or perceived disability." 

The trial court's erroneous instruction prejudiced Wallace. There was no dispute that the County's mistaken perception that Wallace could not perform the essential functions of the job was a substantial motivating factor for its decision to place him on unpaid leave. There also was no dispute that this decision caused Wallace economic harm. 

The Court remanded for a limited trial on the amount of Wallace's economic damages and the existence and amount, if any, of his non-economic damages. 

The opinion is available here

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