Monday, May 9, 2011

Court Holds LAPD Failed to Accommodate Disabled Police Officer

In Cuiellette v. City of Los Angeles (April 22, 2011) --- Cal.App.4th ---, the Second District of the Court of Appeal held the Los Angeles Police Department liable for disability discrimination after it terminated a disabled police officer.

LAPD police officer Rory Cuiellette worked for the Department for several years before he was injured on the job and placed on disability leave. He was found 100% disabled on his workers’ compensation claim and remained on leave for several months before contacting the Department about coming back to work.   His doctor said he could do administrative work only.  The Department assigned him to the Fugitive Warrant Unit in a “purely administrative assignment requiring no field work other than occasionally driving to a nearby courthouse.”  However, after just a couple of days, the Department sent him home because he was found 100% disabled.

The Court held the LAPD’s actions constituted disability discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act because the City failed to accommodate Officer Cuiellette’s disability.  A jury decided the LAPD failed to accommodate Cuiellette and awarded $1,571,500 in damages.  On appeal the City argued Cuiellette’s disability meant he could not perform all of the “essential duties” of police officers and therefore the City had no choice but to let him go.  The Court disagreed, noting the LAPD had several permanent “‘light duty’ assignments…for the specific purpose of accommodating disabled officers who wanted to continue to work.”

In reaching its decision, the Court relied heavily on a similar case involving a firefighter.  In Stone v. City of Mount Vernon (2nd Cir. 1997) 118 F.3d 92, a firefighter was injured in an off-duty accident.  After rehabilitation, he asked to work light duty in the Department’s Fire Alarm Bureau.  The Fire Department refused, claiming firefighters had to be able to do fire suppression even if it was not their primary job.  However, the Court decided the real question was whether a firefighter could do a particular assignment, noting other people spent their career in the Fire Alarm Bureau without doing fire suppression.   In both cases, the Court stressed permanent light duty work was available.  The Court noted the outcome might be different if the LAPD only had temporary light duty positions for police officers.