Animus and Intent in Disability Cases:  A Court Clarifies what Workers Must Show to Prevail in California  

A recent decision of a California Court of Appeal clarifies that a disabled worker is not required to show that their employer had the intention to discriminate against them in order to prevail in a lawsuit under the Fair Employment and Housing Act.  Rather, a disabled worker can prevail in their lawsuit by showing that Gear-and-Gavel_dark-bluethe employer took action against them because of their actual or perceived disability, regardless of whether the employer had an intent to discriminate.

In other words, a worker need not show that an employer harbored any ill will or discriminatory animus toward people with disabilities.  This clarification broadens the scope of disability cases, and sets such cases apart from other types of discrimination cases.  It should cause employers throughout the state to be more careful when taking action against disabled employees.

As a preliminary matter, for many years California law has treated disability discrimination differently than other kinds of discrimination.  Those differences start in the language of the applicable statutes.  Although disability discrimination is lumped in with other types of discrimination in Government Code section 12940(a), other statutory provisions demonstrate that disability discrimination claims are dissimilar from other types of discrimination claims.

For example, Government Code section 12926.1 sets forth specific legislative findings and declarations regarding disabilities.  That section indicates that California’s definition of disability (including physical disabilities, mental disabilities, and medical conditions) is broad.  It extends to situations in which an individual is “erroneously or mistakenly believed” to have “any physical or mental condition that limits a major life activity.”  This is different from other types of discrimination (such as racial discrimination) where an honest but mistaken belief in the reasons for an adverse employment action can preclude liability.  See, e.g., Guz v. Bechtel National Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 317, 358; Wills v. Superior Court (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 143, 170-171.

Thus, disability cases are different.  But how does this translate into what a plaintiff must prove in order to prevail in a disability discrimination case?

Wallace v. County of Stanislaus, a 2016 decision of the Court of Appeal for the Fifth Appellate District, explores what level of intent a plaintiff is required to prove in disability discrimination cases.  In Wallace, the trial court modified the standard form jury instructions to require that the plaintiff prove that the County had treated the plaintiff as having a disability “in order to discriminate.”  The trial court thus tried to graft onto disability cases a requirement that the plaintiff prove that the actions taken by the employer were done with the intent to discriminate.

If this result had stood, it would have made many disability cases virtually impossible to win.  This is because often an employer refuses to allow a disabled person to work not out of any desire to discriminate, but rather in the mistaken belief that the person cannot or should not be allowed to return to work.  Under these circumstances, even though the intention of the employer might be to help, the result is still to discriminate against someone based upon their disability.

Fortunately for employees, the Court of Appeal in Wallace rejected the trial court’s conclusion.  Instead, the Court of Appeal held that a plaintiff in a disability discrimination case can show the required intent to discriminate by proving both of the following:

  1. That the employer knew that the plaintiff had a condition (physical or mental) that limited a major life activity; or that the employer perceived the plaintiff to have such a condition; and
  2. That the plaintiff’s actual or perceived condition was a “substantial motivating factor” in the employer’s decision to take an adverse employment action against the plaintiff.

It is important to note that a plaintiff can meet this test either by showing that they had a disability, or by showing that the employer thought that they had a disability.  So the test includes cases in which the employer believes that a worker has a disability but is wrong in that belief.

The Wallace decision is important because it clarifies this critical issue.  Employers often argue that a plaintiff in a disability case must show that the employer had some type of animus or discriminatory intent toward the plaintiff.  After Wallace it is clear that no ill will is required.

The Wallace court also clarifies another important issue:  the difference between cases involving circumstantial evidence of discrimination and cases involving direct evidence.  Direct evidence includes comments that betray a bias against a certain group of people (for example, “I don’t like working with women,” or “I don’t trust those people”).  Circumstantial evidence is evidence from which one can conclude a certain level of bias (for example, firing all of the workers over 50).  In circumstantial cases, courts have developed a three-stage burden shifting test (referred to as the McDonnell Douglas test) for determining whether there is enough evidence for the case to proceed to trial.  But that test does not apply in cases involving direct evidence of discrimination.

This distinction is important because trial judges sometimes use the McDonnell Douglas test to throw cases out of court before they get to a jury.  The Wallace case makes it clear that the McDonnell Douglas test is not to be used in cases involving direct evidence of discrimination.  Furthermore, it is not to be used in disability cases in which there is direct evidence that the employer’s motive was related to the plaintiff’s disability.

Unless the California Supreme Court grants review, Wallace will be binding on all superior courts in California.  It therefore changes the landscape in a way that helps disabled employees throughout the state.

The attorneys at Hunter Pyle Law have handled many types of disability claims, from pre-litigation resolution through trial.  If you have questions about possible disability issues in your workplace, please feel free to contact Hunter Pyle Law at 510.444.4400 or