Court of Appeal: "Reasonable Accommodation" Must Be Perfectly Executed Every Time

It is one thing to grant a reasonable accommodation. It is another thing to ensure that it is implemented perfectly, every time. Hard cases make bad law. This is a combination of a sympathetic plaintiff, a big company, and a one-time event resulting in a huge verdict.

A.M. was a cashier at an Albertson's in Marin County. After receiving treatment for cancer, she needed to drink copious water. Albertson's let her have water at her station, even though it was against policy. Naturally, A.M. had to use the bathroom more frequently because of the water she was drinking. Albertson's said that she could call her supervisor and they would cover her.

So, Albertson's had granted A.M. extra breaks as an accommodation, and had implemented a system for A.M. to obtain them. The system was working, with A.M. receiving extra breaks by calling her supervisor. On one occasion, the system did not work because the supervisor was the only person who could relieve her and he was unloading a truck. A.M. had an accident at her cashier station. She went home and did not return to work for Albertson's.

According to the court of appeal, that single failure of the supervisor sufficed to be a "denial" of reasonable accommodation. The court upheld a jury verdict of $200K for that one incident. Add the plaintiff's and defense attorney's fees and sooner or later we're talking about a lot of money.

By the same argument, then, if an employee's wrist starts to hurt a few months after the employer installs ergonomic equipment, that alone is the denial of an accommodation? If a diabetic experiences low blood sugar one day, does that mean the employer's accommodation of permitting food at the work area is actionable?

If an accommodation becomes ineffective, the employer is required to engage in the interactive process to come up with a better accommodation, and grant the new accommodation. It is unreasonable to assume that an employee with a disability has a right to a perfect work environment and a guaranteed flawless accommodation, every day. The world does not work that way for anyone - with or without a disability. The issue is: did Albertson's grant her request for accommodation? Yes. Was it effective? Except for the one occasion, apparently so. Was there evidence the company intended to mistreat A.M. or only pretended to accommodate her? No. Could A.M. have filed a workers' compensation claim if she were injured by a work-related condition? Yeah, which was her real remedy here.

Again, A.M. was very sympathetic and what happened that day was truly unfortunate. But absent proof of intentional discrimination, the result of this case is that FEHA is not providing a remedy for a wrong; it is elevating individuals with disabilities above all others and exposing employers to potential liability for isolated failures.

The case is A.M. v. Albertson's and the opinion is here.

My 0.02.