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California's DFEH Drops The Disability Discrimination Hammer - Largest Administrative Award In Its History

By Brandon T. Willenberg

On September 12, 2011, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”) announced its largest-ever administrative award of $846,300 (and no, that’s not a typo) against electrical supplier Acme Electric Corporation (“Acme”) for firing an employee, Mr. Charles Richard Wideman, because he had cancer.

Here is what happened...

Mr. Wideman worked for Acme as western regional sales manager overseeing sales operations in the company’s largest territory, a position that required significant travel.   He developed cancer.  Although Acme granted Mr. Wideman’s requests for time off for surgery and recuperative leave, when he requested further accommodation for the travel limitation his cancers caused, Acme refused to grant or even acknowledge these accommodation requests.  Instead, Mr. Wideman’s supervisor gave him an unfavorable performance evaluation, criticizing him for insufficient travel.  Two months later, Acme terminated Mr. Wideman, allegedly because of his travel restrictions.   

The DFEH rejected Acme’s argument that Mr. Wideman’s poor performance and travel restrictions led to his dismissal.  Instead, the DFEH found Acme violated the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) by failing to accommodate Mr. Wideman's known travel limitation due to his cancers, failing to engage in a good faith interactive process, discriminating against Mr. Wideman because of his disability, and failing to take all reasonable steps necessary to prevent discrimination from occurring.  The DFEH awarded Mr. Wideman $748,571 for lost wages, $22,729 for out-of-pocket expenses and $50,000 for emotional distress.  And for good measure, it ordered Acme to pay $25,000 to the State’s General Fund as an administrative fine. 

California employers (or companies with California-based employees) have affirmative obligations under FEHA to reasonably accommodate employees’ disabilities unless doing so would cause undue hardship – and establishing undue hardship is a significant hurdle for employers.  Employers, as part of this accommodation process, are required to engage in a good faith interactive process to assess what, if any, reasonable accommodations are necessary.  Acme learned these lessons the hard way.  And while the Acme result certainly is not typical -- indeed it was billed as “historic” -- it certainly underscores the fact that California employers must be diligent in their assessment of employee disability issues, in engaging in the good faith interactive process, and in determining whether and how to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability.  Failure to do so may just lead to a starring role in the DFEH’s next press release about imposing another significant disability discrimination award.

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Martha Zackin