Disabled Psychologist’s Claims for Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation against Department of Corrections Fail Despite Providing Doctor’s Notes

Gear and GavelAs an employee, there may be times when you need an accommodation in the workplace due to a disability.  Sometimes, your employer may ask for a doctor’s note in the course of engaging in the interactive process.  How specific do the doctor’s notes need to be?  A recently published case provides some insight into this question.

Plaintiff John Doe began working at Ironwood State Prison as a psychologist in 2012.  In 2013, he requested to work in a quiet place that allowed him to focus and concentrate.  Mr. Doe needed the accommodation because he suffered from LD NOS, which stands for “learning disorder not otherwise specified.”  In response, his employer, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), asked for medical documentation regarding the nature and extent of Mr. Doe’s limitations.  Mr. Doe’s physician provided a note that same month stating that Mr. Doe was easily distracted and disorganized under stress.  The physician stated that a quiet workplace and additional time to complete assignments would benefit Mr. Doe.  A colleague of Mr. Doe’s switched desks with him.  However, Mr. Doe was not satisfied and complained that he should have a private office. When CDCR failed to make any further changes, Mr. Doe went on medical leave.

When Mr. Doe returned from medical leave, his request for a private office was granted on a temporary basis.  Mr. Doe continued to request additional accommodations, such as a thumb drive, a small recorder, and voice-activated computer software.  He also asked for a permanent set up in the private office. CDCR claimed it never received medical documentation regarding Mr. Doe’s medical issues, and thus, could not assess the requests for accommodation.  Mr. Doe went out on medical leave shortly thereafter.

In February 2016, Mr. Doe again requested accommodations due to his learning disability.  He asked for a flash drive and a quiet work space.  Mr. Doe had provided several doctor’s notes in 2015 in support of his requests.  In general, these notes made vague references to an “underlying medical condition” and a “physical disability.”  One mentioned that Mr. Doe was suffering from migraines that are “triggered by his work space environment.”  In March 2016, Mr. Doe’s doctor provided another note that referenced a “chronic work-related medical condition.” However, these notes did not specifically refer to asthma or Mr. Doe’s learning disability.

In April 2016, Mr. Doe was on an extended leave of absence to work for another organization.  When CDCR requested that Mr. Doe return to work, he submitted his resignation.

Mr. Doe sued CDCR for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation based on his disabilities, asthma and dyslexia.  Mr. Doe also brought claims for failure to accommodate his disabilities.  The trial court found no triable issue of material fact and granted summary judgment in favor of CDCR.  Mr. Doe appealed.  The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.  (Doe v. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, E071224, filed Nov. 27, 2019, certified for publication Dec. 19, 2019).

The appellate court found that the discrimination and retaliation claims both failed because Mr. Doe presented no evidence that he had been subjected to an adverse employment action.  Adverse employment actions can include termination, demotion, disciplinary action, or “actions that are reasonably likely to adversely affect an employee’s job performance or opportunity for advancement.”  Mr. Doe was only able to point to conduct by a supervisor that was upsetting, but did not constitute an adverse employment action, according to the Court.

The Court also found that Mr. Doe’s harassment claim failed.  Harassment claims are based on “a type a conduct that is avoidable and unnecessary for job performance.”  When Mr. Doe pointed to incidents such as criticism of his work to substantiate his harassment claim, the Court determined that such incidents did not alter the conditions of Mr. Doe’s employment or create an abusive work environment.

Finally, the Court dismissed the interactive process and accommodations claims as well on the grounds that CDCR never received sufficient information to put it on notice that Mr. Doe suffered from a disability.  None of the notes mentioned or referred to asthma or dyslexia.  LD-NOS and the doctor’s notes were viewed as being too vague.  According to the Court, CDCR never knew the extent of the limitations that Mr. Doe’s asthma and dyslexia caused.  The doctor’s notes provided that Mr. Doe was easily distracted, stressed, and disorganized; however, the Court reasoned many people experience such issues whether or not they are disabled.  The Court further considered that Mr. Doe never gave CDCR evidence that his distraction or disorganization caused limitations beyond the baseline of an average individual.

If you feel that you have been discriminated against on the basis of your disability in the workplace, please feel free to call Hunter Pyle Law for a free consultation at (510)-444-4400 or inquire@hunterpylelaw.com.