Ignoring employee’s allergies results in multimillion dollar lawsuit

A California business retaliated against a worker for reporting an issue and ended up paying the price.

An allergic reaction is a serious event. People in California exposed to allergens may suffer anything from watery eyes to life-threatening breathing trouble. For this reason, it is imperative for companies to take it seriously when an employee reports that the workplace environment is causing adverse reactions.

As a recent lawsuit illustrates, failing to accommodate someone's health needs could be costly. In fact, it could end up losing a company millions.

Exposure and retaliation

For years, an employee at Caltrans in California worked without any trouble, as the company took measures to prevent him from being around certain cleaning products and scented chemicals to which he is allergic. However, according to the Sacramento Bee, in 2010, that changed. A new supervisor not only stopped accommodating him, but called him an "idiot" and said she did not want to hear any complaints from him.

In 2011, the worker filed a complaint with the company's regional office and then with an equal employment office. A regional administrator mandated that the company make arrangements to help the employee. However, in 2012, an inspection revealed that not only was the worker still exposed to the allergens, but his managers were retaliating against him for going to the equal employment office.

The employee claims he was moved around the office several times and even asked to perform reception duties, which he perceived to be a demotion. The lawsuit states that his work area seems to be doused in perfume.

The lawsuit

In September 2013, the employee filed a lawsuit against Caltrans. It cited retaliation, a hostile work environment and failing to accommodate a disability. After a one-month trial that ended in May of this year, a jury awarded him $3 million. The man still works for the company, though he is able to do so from home. According to a company spokeswoman, Caltrans is mulling an appeal.

California employment laws

Several state and federal laws outline the ways in which companies must treat employees. One specific California law states that a business may not discriminate or retaliate against a worker based on his or her request for "reasonable accommodation based on mental or physical disability."

The law demands that disabled workers be qualified to perform the essential duties of their job. If that is true, then the employer must make accommodations that are reasonable, such as making a work area accessible or modifying equipment. The change must not be too costly or difficult.

Anytime a worker feels his or her rights have been infringed, it is important to take quick action and document everything. Concerns about this issue should be brought to an employment law attorney in California.