Out on Leave and Barely Missed

A recent employment discrimination case in the Ninth Circuit involved the following facts: Alice Mendoza, a bookkeeper for a church in Los Angeles, took a ten-month sick leave from her job. While she was gone, the church pastor assumed Mendoza’s duties and discovered that the work did not require a full time bookkeeper. When Mendoza returned from leave, she was informed that her position had been eliminated, and was offered a part-time bookkeeping position. Mendoza did not take the job, but rather sued for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In the case, the church argued that Mendoza failed to demonstrate that the elimination of her job was really a pretext for discrimination based on her disability, rather than a legitimate business decision. The trial court agreed with the church and the case was appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the trial court’s decision: Mendoza failed to show that the church’s actions were directly related to her disability or that the church had an ulterior discriminatory motive and was merely hiding behind the legitimate reason.

This decision affirms that actual ill-will must be proven in ADA claims. (In contrast, discrimination claims under Title VII, for example, do not require the employer to have actual knowledge of an employee’s need for accommodation.) Under the ADA, if there is a legitimate, non-pretextual change to the employee’s job, the employer must seek alternative positions if the initial job is unavailable or eliminated. But, if despite all true efforts, there is no alternative position available, employers may offer a lower position or terminate the employee.

Employers should note that this reasoning applied in Alice Mendoza v The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles may not apply in cases where the Family and Medical Leave Act is in play alongside the ADA.

For questions regarding the ADA or other federal employment statutes and how they apply to your business, contact Wright Beamer.

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