California Court of Appeal Addresses Meaning of “Physically Disabled”

The California Court of Appeal recently issued an opinion that looked into whether an employee has a disability for purposes of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Ross v. County of Riverside, D075106 (published June 10, 2019).  Plaintiff Christopher Ross worked for the County of Riverside as a deputy district attorney.  In 2013, Mr. Ross discovered that he might have a serious neurological condition.  He told his supervisor he might be “seriously ill with a neurogenerative disease.”  Thereafter, in 2013 and 2014, Mr. Ross requested several accommodations, including working on a limited number of cases and being transferred to a different unit.  Mr. Ross was constructively terminated from the County of Riverside in 2014 and thereafter filed suit against his employer asserting disability-related claims.

The County of Riverside filed a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing that Mr. Ross was not physically disabled within the meaning of the FEHA. The trial court granted defendant’s motion.  The appellate court reversed, ruling that Mr. Ross provided sufficient evidence to show that he had a temporary disability on the following grounds:  (1) the County had transferred Mr. Ross from one department to another because it perceived him to be disabled; (2) the County asked Mr. Ross to provide medical documentation about his disability; and (3) the County placed Mr. Ross on a paid leave of absence pending a fitness for duty exam that the County had arranged.  This evidence was sufficient for Mr. Ross to meet his burden that there was a triable issue of material fact on the question of whether he had a disability under the FEHA.

In this same case, Mr. Ross also brought a violation of Labor Code section 1102.5 claim, retaliation for engaging in a protected activity. While he was employed with the County, Mr. Ross articulated that he thought the district attorney’s office was violating a defendant’s due process rights by pursuing a malicious prosecution case against him.  On several occasions, Mr. Ross recommended dismissing the case against the defendant because he did not believe there was probable cause.

After Mr. Ross filed suit, the County of Riverside argued that Mr. Ross could not prove that he had engaged in any protected activity in its Motion for Summary Judgment. The trial court agreed with the defendant.  The appellate court reversed, finding that Mr. Ross recommended dismissing the case he was working on because the case could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and lacked probable cause, and because the defendant’s confession was coerced.  Mr. Ross had also discovered DNA evidence exculpating the defendant and a recorded call indicating that the defendant’s roommate was the killer.

On appeal, the court found that Mr. Ross revealed information which he believed disclosed a violation of federal and state law to people with authority over him. The court held that even though Mr. Ross did not “expressly” state that he thought the County was breaking the law, his reasonable belief that he was disclosing unlawful activity was sufficient.

If you feel that your employer has discriminated or retaliated against you, please feel free to call Hunter Pyle Law for a free consultation at (510)-444-4400 or