In A.M. v. Albertsons, LLC, 178 Cal.App.4th 455 (2009), the California Court of Appeal held in favor of a plaintiff employee on her failure to provide a reasonable accommodation claim. The salient facts of this case are set forth below:
In January 2003, A.M. was on medical leave because of her diagnosis of cancer of the tonsils and larynx. She subsequently underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment, which in turn affected her salivary glands, leaving her mouth very dry. To counter this dryness, A.M. had to constantly drink water – which meant that she had to go to the bathroom frequently to urinate.
In January 2004, A.M. returned to work after her cancer treatment. While at work, she needed to have water with her at all times and to go to the bathroom when necessary (at times, as often as every 45 minutes).
Albertsons’ policy prohibited employees from having beverages at the checkstand; but A.M.’s managers made an exception for A.M. She was also told to let the managers know when she needed to go to the bathroom and they would cover for her. From January 2004 until February 11, 2005, A.M. asked a coworker to take her place at the checkstand when A.M. needed to use the restroom.
In February 2005, Kellie Sampson began working at the same Albertons store as A.M. Sampson was the person in charge of store operations when more senior managers were not present.
On February 11, 2005, A.M. worked the shift scheduled for 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. By 7 p.m. that day, only three employees were left in the store—A.M. (the checker), Britney Hollis (the courtesy checker), and Sampson (the person in charge).
Albertsons’ policy prohibited: (a) a checker from leaving the front of the store unattended; and (b) courtesy clerks (like Hollis) from operating the register. Thus, Sampson was the only person who could relieve A.M. for a restroom break.
Sampson had never worked with A.M. before. There was also no evidence that she knew about A.M.’s disability or the accommodation that had been granted by the store managers.
At approximately 8 p.m., A.M. told Sampson that she needed to take a break. She did not mention needing to use the bathroom. At Sampson’s request, A.M. agreed to wait.
A while later, A.M. called Sampson on the store intercom, stating that she needed to go to the restroom. Sampson replied that she could not relieve A.M. because she was unloading merchandise.
Seven to 10 minutes later, A.M. called Sampson on the intercom again, stating that she really needed to go to the restroom. Again, Sampson said that she was busy and could not come to the front of the store.
Unable to control herself, A.M. urinated while at the checkstand. She felt shaky and humiliated. A.M. eventually left the checkstand to go to the restroom to clean herself.
In September 2006, A.M. filed a lawsuit against Albertsons, alleging a claim for failure to provide her with reasonable accommodations for her disability.
At trial, the jury heard evidence of Albertsons’ written procedure for processing employee requests for reasonable accommodation. Albertsons’ human resources managers for the Northern California district (not individual store managers) would make decisions about employees’ reasonable accommodation requests. The human resources manager would then notify the employee and the store manager if an accommodation was granted.
When granting a reasonable accommodation, Albertsons did not always document the granting of the accommodation even though – given the transient nature of store management – written documentation of reasonable accommodations was seen as critical.
At trial, the jury also heard A.M. testify that on the night of the incident in February 2005, A.M. did not explain to Sampson that she had a disability. Nor did she explain to Sampson that Albertsons accommodated her disability by allowing her to go to the restroom. A.M. did not think that it was necessary to do so because she assumed that management had already informed Sampson about A.M.’s disability and the accommodation. In reality, however, Sampson did not know about A.M.’s disability or the store’s accommodation.
In June 2008, the jury found for A.M. on her failure to provide a reasonable accommodation claim. The jury awarded A.M. $200,000 in damages (i.e., $12,000 for past lost wages, $40,000 in future medical expenses, and $148,000 for past emotional distress).
Albertsons filed an appeal, arguing, among other things, that the trial court should have granted Albertsons’ motion for nonsuit because Albertsons did not fail to accommodate A.M. More specifically, Albertsons argued that A.M. failed to continue the interactive process by notifying Sampson of her disability and of management’s granting of the agreed-upon accommodation. The Court of Appeal disagreed with Albertsons, finding that an employee does not have a duty to continue the interactive process after an employer has already agreed to provide a reasonable accommodation.
Albertsons also argued that its failure to accommodate incident in February 2005 was “trivial, because it constituted a single incident in the context of a much longer period of successful accommodation beginning in January 2004 when A.M. returned to work after her cancer treatment.” (Albertsons, LLC, 178 Cal.App.4th at 464-65) “In essence, Albertsons reason[ed] that the FEHA allows for at least one failure to accommodate, if a pattern of successful accommodation also is shown.” (Id. at 465)
The Court of Appeal disagreed with Albertsons’ reasoning. “In our view, to adopt this interpretation of a failure to accommodate would be inconsistent with the FEHA. The statute does not speak of a pattern of failure and Albertsons cites no case authority supporting its interpretation of the FEHA failure to accommodate statute requiring one.” (Id. at 465) Moreover, the Court of Appeal pointed out that A.M.’s case demonstrates that “a single failure to make reasonable accommodation can have tragic consequences for an employee who is not accommodated.” (Id.) Read the full Court of Appeal opinion here.
If you have believe that you have a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation claim against your current or former employer, call ((916) 612-0326) or email ([email protected]) Finley Employment Law today. We serve clients throughout California, including Sacramento, Folsom, Roseville, Walnut Creek, Concord, and San Ramon.
The information in this blog post is for general informational and advertising purposes only and is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. Instead, you should speak with a California employment attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.