Is allergy a disability requiring employer accommodation in California?
When John Barrie first started working as an office technician for California Department of Transportation (CalTrans), he informed his supervisor that he had allergic rhinitis. This made him extremely allergic to chemicals and scented products like perfumes and household cleansers. His supervisor informally accommodated him by asking employees to refrain from wearing strong perfumes and prohibiting the cleaning staff from using certain chemicals to clean the office. Barrie worked for 5 years without any issues.
In early 2010, Donna Jones became Barrie’s new manager. A few months later, Barrie discovered that prohibited chemicals were being used to clean the office. He complained to Jones that these chemicals were damaging his health. Jones told Barrie to stop complaining and threatened him with relocation to an office where there were even more toxic chemicals. Barrie complained to the Regional Manager, who provided him formal accommodation of his disability, but this accommodation was not enforced.
As a result, Barrie suffered mild to severe headaches, dizziness, trembling and impaired cognitive function. He was transferred to a new office that was newly painted, and the paint fumes caused him to have a major reaction that forced him to file a worker’s compensation claim. He was kept off work for more than two months and, after he returned, was stripped of job duties that paid him substantial overtime. Barrie was also the victim of harassment by Jones and other employees. He was called derogatory names and told to “shut up” by Jones. Two workers testified that Jones sprayed Barrie’s workspace with perfume.
Barrie sued CalTrans, claiming disability harassment and discrimination, failure to engage in a timely and good faith interactive process and failure to accommodate, among others.
The employer provided contradictory arguments such as that it accommodated Barrie, but also that Barrie’s disability was impossible to accommodate, and that Barrie was faking or deluded about having a disability.
California law defines two categories of disability: mental disability and physical disability. A physical disability is any physiological disease, disorder, condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss that affects the body and limits a major life activity. There is a list of body systems that could be affected including neurological, immunological, and respiratory systems. When a condition limits a major life activity, it means that the achievement of the major life activity is difficult. Working at a job is considered a major life activity.
Physical disability also includes any other health impairment that requires special education or related services; having a record or history of a disease, disorder, condition, cosmetic disfigurement, anatomical loss, or health impairment which is known to the employer; and being perceived or treated by the employer as having any of the aforementioned conditions.
Additionally, under the law, an employee with a “medical condition” is also entitled to accommodation. A medical condition is any health impairment related to or associated with a diagnosis of cancer or a record or history of cancer, or a genetic characteristic.
A mental disability is any mental or psychological disorder or condition, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, or specific learning disabilities, that limits a major life activity.
California law prohibits discrimination based on disability or medical condition. If a disabled employee is unable to perform his or her work duties, the employer must engage in a timely, good faith interactive process to determine if reasonable accommodation can be made for the employee.
In Barrie’s case, the employer failed to accommodate Barrie’s known disability. Worse, Barrie was subjected to harassment and bullying by his manager and co-workers because of his disability.
After a trial, the jury found in favor of Barrie and awarded him $44,413 in past economic loss, and $3 million in past emotional distress for a total award of $3,044,413.
The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com or our Facebook page Joe Sayas Law. [C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. is an experienced trial attorney who has successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is the recipient of PABA’s Community Champion Award for 2016.]