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Court rules accidental discrimination is still discrimination

A California Court of Appeals’ decision regarding a wrongful termination claim and disability discrimination has a warning for employers: Be cautious when you apply a termination policy to a newly disabled employee. You’d better be certain that you’ve done everything necessary to make reasonable accommodations for the disability and that you’re not making an error in the application of your policy. If you do make an error, you — not the employee — will bear the financial consequences.

The case behind the ruling involved a pharmaceutical representative who developed an eye condition that impaired his ability to drive, thus making him unable to do his job. However, he requested accommodation by asking to be reassigned to a position that didn’t require driving. In fact, he asked repeatedly and was forced to complain that the company’s human resource department wasn’t doing enough to arrange a transfer.

This went on for six months — at which point the employee became eligible to file for long-term disability benefits. Misreading company policy (which stated that employees would be let go from their positions when they filed for long-term disability), the human resources department fired him.

He promptly met with them to explain that they were making a mistake — but the company took nine long months to acknowledge the error and offer him back his job, his pay and his health benefits. The odds are good that the employee had suffered some significant economic distress because of his employer’s actions, so he sued.

The lower court dismissed his claim, but he was successful on appeal because the appellate court found that the company had not done enough to accommodate the employee’s request for accommodation, could have been acting in a retaliatory fashion over his complaints and his firing was discriminatory. The fact that it was done in mistake isn’t the employee’s burden to bear.

If you’re suffering from a recent disability, make sure that you fully understand your rights as an employee. If you believe you’re experiencing retaliation or disability discrimination at work, know that you have rights that can be enforced.

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