A construction management firm in Los Angeles terminated an employee who had worked there for seven years after a workplace injury led to his disability. The employee filed suit against the organization and won a multi-million-dollar verdict.
The plaintiff alleged the employer forced him to perform manual labor in violation of its policies, which caused the injury. The organization then allegedly terminated him because his doctor determined that he had a permanent disability that would require "modest" accommodation.
The lawsuit accused the employer of failing to engage in the interactive process and failing to provide a reasonable accommodation.
The employer claimed during the trial that the employee did not perform well and quit his job. However, the jury decided that evidence showed the plaintiff was a good employee and the employer lied about this performance to cover up its disability discrimination.
The jury found in favor of the plaintiff and held the employer liable for disability discrimination; wrongful termination; failure to engage in the interactive process; failure to accommodate; and failure to prevent discrimination. It awarded the plaintiff punitive damages and other awards totaling $2,700,000. "Jury Awards Former Employee of Cordoba Corporation $2,700,000 for Disability Discrimination" digitaljournal.com (Dec. 10, 2019).
Commentary and Checklist
When an injured or ill member of the staff returns back to work, a family employer must engage in an interactive process with the staff member if he or she is they are requesting a reasonable accommodation. Failing to do so can lead to liability as in the source article. Either the federal Americans with Disabilities Act or the state anti-disability discrimination laws cover most family employers.
Train those who manage staff to pass on all requests for accommodation, including informal requests, to those authorized to engage in the interactive process with the staff member. Remind them that this includes even requests tied to a workplace injury that has already been managed as a worker's compensation claim.
Maintaining a hazard-free workplace—or reducing hazards as much as possible—can help reduce injuries and the need for accommodations.
Family employers should follow these tips to help create a safe work environment for staff:
· Task a supervisor with checking the work areas to avoid injuries.
· If there is a hazard in the home that cannot be removed, notify staff of the hazard and have staff sign a statement that they understand the risk and free the employer from liability.
· Make sure staff is thoroughly trained on safe ways of working with any chemicals, dangerous equipment, or other hazards that they must deal with in performing their job duties.
· Teach staff the proper techniques for lifting heavy objects.
· Ask staff to assist each other when necessary.
· Document all safety training provided to staff as well as attempts to remove known hazards.