• Job Functions May Be Essential Under Disability Law, Even If Rarely Performed
  • January 30, 2013
  • Law Firm: Hill Farrer Burrill LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • Recently, two California appellate courts issued decisions holding that certain duties may be essential job functions even where an employee is not regularly required to perform them. These decisions underscore the complexity employers face when trying to figure out how to accommodate disabled employees under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

    In Lui v. City and County of San Francisco, the plaintiff was a police officer who suffered a heart attack and could no longer perform his duties. He filed suit against his employer, the San Francisco Police Department ("SFPD"), when it refused to assign him to an administrative position. The SFPD declined to do so because administrative officers might have to perform the same strenuous duties as field officers, such as making arrests and chasing fleeing suspects, in the event of emergencies and mass mobilizations.

    In his suit, the plaintiff claimed that the SFPD should have offered him a position as an administrative officer because strenuous duties were not really essential to the job. After conducting a detailed job analysis, the Court of Appeal disagreed. The court found that even though administrative officers were not frequently required to engage in strenuous duties, it did not mean those functions were not essential. Key to the court's analysis was the SFPD's showing that there were a limited number of police officers available to respond to emergencies, and there were circumstances when administrative officers had to mobilize due to "mass celebrations, demonstrations, and earthquakes and other large-scale emergencies."

    The court reached a similar result in Furtado v. State Personnel Board. In Furtado, the plaintiff was a correctional lieutenant for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation ("Department"). Classified as a "peace officer," his duties required the ability to subdue inmates and use a baton. However, as a result of injuries stemming from a motor vehicle accident, the plaintiff could no longer perform these duties.

    Similar to Lui, the plaintiff requested to work as an administrative officer. The Department denied the request because administrative officers had to be able to perform the same duties as other officers. Ultimately, the Department decided to medically demote the plaintiff and place him in a different position.

    The plaintiff sued, claiming that officers in administrative positions did not have to use batons or engage in the physical duties that he could no longer perform. The court, however, rejected this claim because the Department demonstrated that these functions were essential to the job.

    Specifically, the Department showed that officers might be assigned to work at a variety of posts. For example, an administrative officer might have to work in the prison yard, search prison cells, or have contact with inmates. Also, prisons are volatile environments where there are fights between inmates, assaults or even riots. As a result, it is important for all officers to be capable of using non-lethal weapons to disarm or subdue inmates. Officers who could not perform these duties would present a hazard to themselves and others.