Rancho Santiago Community College District Found Liable for Failing to Accommodate Disabled Employee

Plaintiff Maria Hernandez worked for Rancho Santiago Community College District on and off for several years without having any performance issues.  In 2013, the district hired her as an administrative assistant.  Per the district’s protocol, Ms. Hernandez was put on probation for one year.  The district would evaluate her performance at three months, seven months and eleven months.  At the successful completion of the probationary period, Ms. Hernandez would then become a permanent employee.

Eight months into her probationary period, Ms. Hernandez went out on district-approved temporary disability leave to have surgery.  The district had not evaluated her performance at three and seven months.  She was scheduled to return shortly after the one year anniversary of her hiring date.

Rancho Santiago Community College District terminated Ms. Hernandez while she was out of disability leave. She sued the district alleging that it has violated the California Fair Employment and Housing Act by failing to reasonably accommodate her and failing to engage in the interactive process.  The trial court ruled in Ms. Hernandez’s favor, finding that the district “could have accommodated Ms. Hernandez by extending her probationary period or by adding the time away from work to the probationary period.”  Hernandez v. Rancho Santiago Community College District, 4th Dist. Case No.G054563 (filed May 3, 2018).  The trial court reasoned that extending Ms. Hernandez’s probationary period to accommodate her would not have posed an undue hardship on the district.  Ms. Hernandez was awarded $723,746 in damages.

The district appealed on the grounds that it had no choice but to terminate Ms. Hernandez at the conclusion of the one year probationary period.  If it had failed to fire her, the district contended that it would have been forced to make Ms. Hernandez a permanent employee without having evaluated her performance.

The Fourth Appellate District confirmed the trial court’s judgment.  The appellate court determined that the district initially accommodated Ms. Hernandez by giving her time off to have surgery.  However, “the accommodation can hardly be considered reasonable when it included the consequence that she would lose her job if she took the time off to undergo surgery.”  Id.  Providing leave is not a reasonable accommodation if taking it leads directly to termination of employment.  The district could have provided a reasonable accommodation by deducting the leave time from the probationary period so that it would have had a full twelve months to evaluate Ms. Hernandez.

If you have a disability and feel that your employer failed to accommodate you, please feel free to call Hunter Pyle Law for a free consultation at (510)-444-4400 or inquire@hunterpylelaw.com.