Fired Cancer Patient’s Award Affirms Disability Protections in California

When a California regional sales manager had to cut back traveling for his job as he recovered from cancer-related surgery, his employer fired him, citing poor performance of his work duties at the time. In response to this unfair treatment, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) recently awarded the fired employee significant damages. The DFEH also fined the company for violating California state laws prohibiting discrimination against disabled employees like recovering cancer patients.

Fired Cancer Patient's Award

California resident Charles Wideman worked as a regional sales manager for Acme Electric, a Wisconsin-based company, until March of 2008. From 2004 to 2008, he ran Acme's biggest sales territory. After undergoing cancer surgery in 2006 and 2007, he limited his work-related travel activities while he recovered. Acme fired Wideman in 2008, however, claiming his work performance, particularly his ability to travel to meet customers, suffered. Wideman was 59 at the time and just eight years shy of his target retirement age of 67.

Acme cited valid reasons for firing an employee, but the DFEH, a state agency working to protect civil rights, called Wideman's dismissal discriminatory. The DFEH said Acme owed Wideman a duty to support his decreased travel plans during recovery, when he was unable to perform his usual work duties. Because Acme fired Wideman when he was statutorily disabled, the DFEH fined Acme $25,000 and ordered the company to pay him $821,000 for lost wages and benefits. This was the largest award ever granted by the DFEH.

Federal and State Disability Protections

Under California law, specifically the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the employment rights of people disabled by either physical or mental disorders limiting major life activities are protected. The FEHA also forbids employment discrimination due to a medical condition. The FEHA defines a medical condition as any genetic characteristics or cancer diagnosis impairing a person's health. This law directly applies to Wideman's situation, as well as Acme's violation of the law's reasonable accommodation requirement.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also protects employees with disabilities and is similar to the FEHA. The ADA prohibits discriminatory employment activities that adversely impact opportunities offered to disabled employees. These activities include the segregation, limitation or classification of people based on a disability. Failing to reasonably accommodate an employee's disability or employing tests to weed out candidates or employees with physical or mental impairments are also discriminatory and violate the ADA.

Understanding Disabled Employee Rights

Current or potential employees with certain disabilities or medical conditions in California have a right to employment. Impaired employees are protected under both state FEHA and federal ADA laws. When violations occur, like the wrongful termination of Charles Wideman, employees who qualify as disabled according to either one or both statutes may seek compensatory or punitive damages to remedy the discriminatory practices of their employers. If you were recently treated unfairly or wrongfully terminated by an employer, contact a California employment law attorney to discuss your legal rights and options.