California’s FEHA Puts Burden of Proof on Employee to Show Qualification

John GarnerLegislative Updates, Resources

California’s Supreme Court has ruled that plaintiffs who claim disability discrimination under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) must prove they are qualified to perform the job’s essential function, with or without reasonable accommodation. Citation: Dwight D. Green vs. State of California.

Mr. Green was a stationary engineer for the state Department of Corrections at the California Institute for Men in Chino. After he returned to work following a work-related injury in 2000, the institute’s work coordinator discovered a 1997 doctor’s report, which followed treatment for hepatitis, recommending light duty only for Mr. Green.

The same day, Mr. Green came to the work coordinator’s office complaining of fatigue because of the hepatitis. The work coordinator sent Mr. Green a letter telling him he could not return to his position unless he could be cleared for full duty. After Mr. Green’s request to return to work was denied he filed a disability discrimination claim with the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing and a complaint for damages in state superior court.

The trial judge did not instruct the jury that Mr. Green must prove he was qualified for the position and the jury awarded him $597,000 in economic damages and $2 million in noneconomic damages. A state appellate court ruled that under FEHA the burden is on the defendant to establish that a plaintiff is incapable of performing the essential duties of a job. The California Supreme Court disagreed and stated in its opinion “the Legislature has placed the burden on a plaintiff to show that he or she is a qualified individual under the FEHA.” This ruling makes the burden of proof under California’s FEHA the same as under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

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