Denial of disability benefits, failure to offer accommodation didn’t show constructive discharge

An employee who claimed his employer failed to engage in the interactive process or accommodate his disability, and that a claims examiner falsely told him she had contacted his doctor before denying his disability claim, was unable to proceed with his claims under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and Family Rights Act (CFRA) after a federal district court found them unsupported by sufficient facts.

Took leave due to stress.

Due to complications from job-related stress and depression, the employee took approximately three months of FMLA leave in 2015. He claimed that during that time, he requested disability benefits and that a claims examiner falsely told him that she had contacted his doctor and found insufficient evidence to support his disability claim.

After being denied benefits and while still on leave, the employee gave his employer a note stating that his health prevented his return to his prior position. His supervisor responded that a different position was not available for him after he returned from leave. The employee claimed that he was never contacted to see if there was a reasonable accommodation which would allow him to perform his job. He contended that the claims examiner’s fraudulent statements in connection with the denial of his benefits and his employer’s failure to engage in a good faith interactive process left him with no alternative other than to resign. He filed suit under the FEHA and CFRA.

No protected activity to support retaliation claim.

The employee argued that he sufficiently pleaded a claim for retaliation because his request for an accommodation was a protected activity. Disagreeing, the court noted that a request for accommodation did not constitute protected activity and was insufficient to state a claim for retaliation. While the court recognized that a 2016 amendment modified the FEHA such that requests for accommodation can be protected activity, the amendment did not state that it was retroactive and the employee failed to point to any sources indicating that it should be applied retroactively. Therefore, his accommodation request was not a basis on which to state a retaliation claim.

Further, the employee’s argument that his disability leave, the alleged misrepresentation in connection with the denial of his disability benefits, and his alleged request for disability benefits were protected activities was unpersuasive. The employee did not allege that he expressly opposed any unlawful act, policy, or practice of his employer. He merely alleged that he requested an accommodation and took a medical leave of absence, and cited the denial of his disability benefits as the basis for his retaliation claim. If that were sufficient, the employee’s definition of protected activity would conflate retaliation with the failure to accommodate or engage in the interactive process, concluded the court. Thus, the employee failed to plead facts sufficient to establish a protected activity.

No constructive discharge.

The employee’s constructive discharge claim was based on his employer’s lie about contacting his doctor and its failure to engage in a good faith interactive process. He argued those issues left him with no reasonable alternative but to resign from his employment. Disagreeing, the court wrote that a reasonable and diligent employee would have responded with another viable alternative, rather than feeling compelled to resign. Also, the facts did not indicate that his employer intentionally created or knowingly permitted working conditions so intolerable that it was foreseeable that a reasonable person would feel compelled to resign. Further, a misrepresentation in connection with the denial of the employee’s application for disability benefits had little to no impact on his actual working conditions. At the time of the denial, the employee was on disability leave. The denial could not have substantially affected his working conditions. Moreover, a one-time denial of disability benefits in no way established a continuous pattern of employer misconduct required to find the working conditions so intolerable as to support a claim of constructive discharge.

The employee asserted that his employer failed to engage in the interactive process and provide him with reasonable accommodations. However, the employee failed to allege any extraordinary or egregious working conditions that would compel a reasonable person to resign. Nor did he allege any unusually aggravating factor or reasonable inference that the two isolated incidents – his note about his inability to return to his position, and his supervisor’s alleged reply – were motivated by the employer’s desire for his resignation. The employee could have remained on leave while appealing the denial of his disability benefits and continued a conversation regarding reasonable accommodations. Instead, he chose to resign. The court concluded that the employer’s failure to engage in the interactive process and denial of disability benefits as alleged in the complaint—whether considered individually or together—was insufficient to establish intolerable work conditions as a matter of law.

As for the disability discrimination claims, the court found insufficient facts to support those allegations. Also, the alleged constructive termination did not constitute an adverse employment action for the purposes of a disability discrimination claim. And, contrary to the employee’s arguments, his complaint did not allege that he requested a transfer or any accommodations. The employee merely informed his employer of the temporary nature of his current situation; he was not requesting the employer take any action. “To make the inference that there is a request embedded in a merely informational statement is thus nonsensical.” Moreover, there were no facts showing any connection between the employer’s conduct and the employee’s disability.

Finally, there were insufficient facts to support the CFRA claims of retaliation and interference. Accordingly, the employer’s motion to dismiss the complaint in its entirety was granted. The employer’s motion to strike was found to be moot in light of the ruling on the motion to dismiss.

SOURCE: Jaffe v. Sedgwick Claims Management Services, Inc., (C.D. Cal.), No. 2:17-cv-03421-ODW (Ex), July 24, 2017.

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