Oct. 20, 2005 Court of Appeal Clarifies Defenses Applicable to Labor Code Section 132a Claims
Labor Code Section 132a prohibits employers from discriminating and retaliating against injured employees who pursue workers’ compensation benefits. In an important ruling yesterday (County of San Luis Obispo v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board), the California Court of Appeal provided some much needed guidance on the elements necessary to establish a violation of Section 132a, as well as clarification of the reasonable business necessity defense available to employers.
During an assault by a violent patient while working as a mental health therapist in a homeless outreach program for the County of San Luis Obispo, Art Martinez sustained injuries to various parts of his body. After recovering from back surgery related to these injuries, Martinez was released to return to work with prescribed work restrictions. The County returned Martinez to work at the Vicente School, a facility serving emotionally disturbed teenagers.
Subsequently, Martinez was re-examined and issued new work restrictions, including the restriction that he not be returned to a job with a potential for involvement in physical altercations. Based on the County’s experience, Martinez’s duties at the Vicente School included the potential for physical altercations. For example, in the past years, there were incidents at the Vicente School involving students throwing chairs, threatening and assaulting staff and other students, and bringing weapons to the program. Based on this information, Martinez was informed that his duties at the Vicente School were incompatible with his work restrictions and he was advised not to report to work until further notice.
After being taken off of work, Martinez filed a petition under Labor Code Section 132a with the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (“WCAB”), claiming that the County unlawfully discriminated against him because he had filed a claim for and received workers’ compensation benefits. At a hearing on this claim before a workers’ compensation judge, Martinez testified that he could perform all of his required job duties. In response, several Vicente School employees testified that many male students weigh between 200 and 300 pounds, are seriously emotionally disturbed, have physically aggressive tendencies, and that physical altercations occur on a regular basis. After the hearing, the workers’ compensation judge found that the County unlawfully discriminated against Martinez in violation of Section 132a and awarded him back pay, reinstatement, and a $10,000 penalty. After the WCAB affirmed this decision, the County appealed to the California Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal reversed the WCAB’s decision on two grounds. First, the Court of Appeal explained that Martinez could not establish his claim of discrimination because he did not present any evidence showing that he was singled out for disadvantageous treatment because of his injury. Thus, the Court of Appeal clarified that simply showing an industrial injury and some detrimental employment consequences is not enough for an employee to establish a violation of Section 132a.
Second, even if Martinez could present evidence that he was singled out for disadvantageous treatment, the County could still defeat Martinez’s claim by showing that its decision was necessitated by the realities of doing business. This “reasonable business necessity” defense recognizes that Section 132a does not compel an employer to ignore business realities by re-employing unqualified employees. Applying this defense, the Court of Appeal explained that an employer does not violate Section 132a if, at the time of the employment termination, it reasonably believes that the employee cannot perform the customary work without risk of either re-injury or further injury to himself or others. Finding that the County presented substantial evidence to show that its conduct was based on the reasonable belief that Martinez could not perform his job without the risk of re-injury or further injury, the Court of Appeal determined that the reasonable business necessity defense defeated Martinez’s Section 132a claim.
What this Means
This case is important, since the WCAB tends to favor employees in Section 132a cases, and this decision clarifies that the employee has to jump over two hurdles to prevail on such a claim. First, the employee must show that he was singled out for disadvantageous treatment because of his injuries. Second, the employer can still prevail by showing that its action was justified under the reasonable business necessity defense. Despite this positive development in regard to Section 132a claims, employers must remain aware of their separate obligations under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, which requires employers to provide a reasonable accommodation to injured employees, and to engage in an interactive process with these employees to find potential reasonable accommodations.