Green v. State of California: Employee Alleging Disability Discrimination Has Burden To Prove Qualified For Job

The California Supreme Court ruled in employers' favor this week by holding that an employee alleging disability discrimination has the burden of proof to show that he or she can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. The case, Green v. State of California, clarified that it is the employee who must make this showing in order to prove disability discrimination and that the employer does not have to affirmatively prove that the plaintiff was unqualified in order to avoid liability. 

The Court stated:

[W]e disagree with the statement of defendant’s burden of proof adopted by the Court of Appeal and advocated by plaintiff here. Instead, we conclude that the Legislature has placed the burden on a plaintiff to show that he or she is a qualified individual under the FEHA (i.e., that he or she can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation). As explained further below, legislative intent, case law, and legislative history support defendant’s position—a view that also finds support in Evidence Code section 500, which requires a plaintiff to prove each fact essential to the claim for relief he or she is asserting.

However, employers should still approach this subject very carefully. For example, an employer is required to explore with the employee all possible means of reasonably accommodating a person prior to rejecting the person for a job or making any employment related decision.  The accommodation may arise from a mitigating measure, such as medication taken for the primary disability.  An accommodation is reasonable if it does not impose an undue hardship on the employer’s business.  Reasonable accommodation can include, but is not limited to, changing job duties or work hours, providing leave, relocating the work area, and/or providing mechanical or electrical aids.  

Human resource professionals, in-house counsel and/or business owners in California should take a few minutes to review the DFEH’s website for an employer's general obligations in regards to disabled employees, particularly the following helpful documents:

[This is a good resource to refresh the basic requirements of California law, including, what is required by the interactive process, what constitutes an undue hardship and what questions may be asked of an applicant or employee about his or her ability to perform the job.]

[This is a brief two page pamphlet published by the DFEH summarizing the law.]

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