If a police officer recruit cannot perform the essential functions of their job because of an injury suffered during their time at the Police Academy, can the officer prevail on a claim for disability discrimination or failure to accommodate?  In the recent case of Atkins v. City of Los Angeles, No. B257890, Second Dist., Div. Seven (Feb. 14, 2017), the Court dealt with such a case, providing guidance on how to analyze these claims in a police setting and instructing how to challenge a future wage loss award.  

Atkins involved claims brought by five former recruits who were injured during training at the Police Academy.  The recruits had been off work and/or in a light duty assignment for over six months, and were subsequently given the option to resign or be terminated.  The five Plaintiffs prevailed at trial on three FEHA disability-related claims and the City then appealed the jury verdicts. 

Although the trial court ruled that the Plaintiffs were “qualified individuals” under FEHA for purposes of their disability discrimination claim because they were qualified to perform light duty tasks, the Appellate Court found otherwise.  Specifically, the Court explained that whether Plaintiffs could perform light duty tasks has no bearing on their disability discrimination claim.  Instead, the question is whether they could perform the essential functions of the job held with or without reasonable accommodation. Put another way, to establish a disability discrimination claim, Plaintiffs needed to prove they were qualified for the positions in which the accommodation was sought – not for another position requested as a reassignment.  Here, the Court found that based on their restrictions, the Plaintiffs could not prove they were qualified to perform the essential functions of a police recruit.

While the issue of whether an employee is qualified to perform the essential functions of the position to which reassignment is sought is not relevant for analyzing whether a plaintiff has been subjected to disability discrimination, it is relevant in analyzing a claim for failure to provide reasonable accommodation.  The Court upheld the jury’s decision for Plaintiffs on the failure to accommodate claim finding that the Plaintiffs were qualified for and capable of performing the essential functions of an assignment in the City’s temporary work program. Even though Plaintiffs were going through the City’s training program at the time of their respective injuries, the City still had a duty to provide reassignment as a reasonable accommodation.

Although the Court upheld the jury’s decision on the failure to accommodate claim, the Court ordered a new trial on Plaintiffs’ future economic damages awards finding that they were speculative.  The jury awarded over $6.5 million in future lost earnings were based on testimony from Plaintiffs’ economic damages expert.  The expert assumed that all of the Plaintiffs would have graduated from the academy, completed their probationary periods, enjoyed being peace officers, stayed with the Police Department until retirement age, and then stayed another five years to collect additional retirement benefits.  The Court found that while the expert relied on the above assumptions, there was no evidence in the record that the plaintiffs would have completed any or all of the above tasks.        

For members with police agencies, this case contains some helpful information regarding how to analyze disability discrimination claims brought by officers or recruits.  It also provides some helpful guidance as to what courts are looking for when determining whether reassignment to another position would constitute a reasonable accommodation.

For further information or questions, contact Mike Pott, EIA Chief Claims Officer at mpott@csac-eia.org.