Plaintiff Ketryn Cornell began working part-time for the Berkeley Tennis Club as a lifeguard and pool manager in 1997, while attending college at UC Berkeley. She was employed as a night manager and continued to work at the Club after graduating from college in 2001. In 2011, she took on additional duties and began working as a night manager, day manager, and tennis court washer. She received positive reviews, merit bonuses, and raises throughout this period.
The Club employed a new general manager in 2012. The new manager implemented a uniform policy. While mandating the staff to wear uniform shirts, the largest sized ordered by the club did not fit Cornell. Cornell was obese, at five feet, five inches tall, she weighed over 350 pounds. Cornell explained to the general manager that she needed a bigger size, and he reported that he would work on providing an appropriate uniform. However, it is unclear if he attempted to find shirt Cornell could fit. Taking upon herself, Cornell ordered shirts from a specialty shop at her own expense and had them embroidered with the Club logo.
Cornell filed a lawsuit in May 2014, asserting causes of action for various Labor Code violations and the eight causes of action that were at issue on the appeal, which included disability discrimination/failure to accommodate under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), wrongful discharge in violation of public policy based on the disability discrimination, disability harassment under the FEHA, and retaliation under the FEHA. This Friday’s Five reviews five takeaways for California employers arising from this disability discrimination decision:
1. Obesity can qualify as a physical disability under the Fair Employment and Housing Act.
Under FEHA, it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee on the basis of “physical disability.” (Gov. Code, § 12940, subd. (a).) In addition to making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of disability, the FEHA makes it unlawful “to fail to make reasonable accommodation for the known physical . . . disability of an . . . employee.” (§ 12940, subd. (m)(1).) Finally, the FEHA prohibits an employer from harassing an employee “because of . . . physical disability.” (§ 12940, subd. (j)(1).)
The Club moved for summary adjudication of the discrimination/failure to accommodate claim and the harassment claim on the basis that Cornell’s obesity is not a physical disability under FEHA. The Club also argued that even if Cornell has a condition protected by the FEHA, she did not require an accommodation and was not terminated for a discriminatory reason, and the Club’s actions were not severe or pervasive enough to constitute harassment.
Cornell argued that her obesity qualified as an actual physical disability because it is a “physiological disease, disorder, condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss that does both of the following: [¶] (A) Affects one or more of the following body systems: neurological, immunological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory, including speech organs, cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, hemic and lymphatic, skin, and endocrine. [¶] (B) Limits a major life activity.” (Government Code § 12926, subd. (m)(1).)
In Cassista v. Community Foods, Inc. (1993) 5 Cal.4th 1050 (Cassista), the California Supreme Court held “that weight may qualify as a protected `handicap’ or `disability’ within the meaning of the FEHA if medical evidence demonstrates that it results from a physiological condition affecting one or more of the basic bodily systems and limits a major life activity.” (Id. at p. 1052.) Interpreting the same statutory language as currently found in section 12926, subdivision (m)(1)(A), and relying on federal antidiscrimination law for guidance, the Court concluded that “an individual who asserts a violation of the FEHA on the basis of his or her weight must adduce evidence of a physiological, systemic basis for the condition.” (Cassista, at pp. 1063-1065.)
The court set forth the definition of “physiological”:
Rather, the pertinent question is whether a genetic cause qualifies as a “physiological cause.” “Physiological” means “relating to the functioning of living organisms.” (Oxford English Dict. Online (3d ed. Mar. 2006) [as of Dec. 21, 2017 [physiological].) This term encompasses genetics, and the Club does not argue otherwise. We therefore reject the implication that Cornell cannot establish her claim by proving that her obesity has a genetic cause.
The Court found that Cornell’s testimony that other doctors hand determined that her obesity was caused by genetics, and the fact that those doctors were not deposed, was enough evidence for Cornell to overcome the employer’s motion for summary judgment and proceed to trial on this claim.
2. Even if others were involved in decision to terminate, plaintiff can still maintain a discrimination cause of action if person alleged to have discriminated against plaintiff was involved in the termination decision.
The employer in this case argued that the general manager who was alleged to have discriminated against Cornell was not the only person involved in the decision to terminate her, but that other supervisors were involved, and therefore the decision could not have been discriminatory. The court rejected this argument in holding:
“[S]howing that a significant participant in an employment decision exhibited discriminatory animus is enough to raise an inference that the employment decision itself was discriminatory, even absent evidence that others in the process harbored such animus.” (DeJung v. Superior Court (2008) 169 Cal.App.4th 533, 551.) There is evidence that [General Manager] Headley made several comments suggesting he held a discriminatory animus toward Cornell. Although the extent to which he participated with Gurganus and Miller in the decision to fire Cornell is unclear, there is plenty of evidence that he participated in some way….
3. While sporadic comments are not enough to create a hostile work environment, courts may look to the context of all of the actions taken against the employee in determining if a hostile work environment existed.
The Club argued that even if Cornell is otherwise entitled to protection under the FEHA, summary adjudication of her disability harassment claim was proper because she was not subject to sufficiently severe or pervasive harassment. The appellate court disagreed:
Here, Cornell was able to present enough evidence to at least continue to trial with her harassment cause of action because of the statements made by the General Manager in regards to obtaining a uniform shirt that fit Cornell, the General Manager’s comments about Cornell having weight-loss surgery, and his comments to kitchen staff not to give Cornell extra food because “she doesn’t need it.” The Court recognized that these types of comments on four occasions do not create a hostile work environment, “Four comments over several months does not establish a pattern of routine harassment creating a hostile work environment, particularly given that the comments were not extreme.” (“Actionable harassment consists of more than “annoying or `merely offensive’ comments in the workplace,” and it cannot be “occasional, isolated, sporadic, or trivial; rather, the employee must show a concerted pattern of harassment of a repeated, routine, or a generalized nature.” (Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions (2006) 38 Cal.4th 264, 283.)”)
However, the Court found that the employer’s conduct must be viewed in context of the General Manager’s other actions, “including his ordering of shirts that were significantly too small for her and reporting to the Personnel Committee that she was resisting the uniform policy by not wearing appropriate shirts, as well paying her less than another employee and denying her extra hours and internal job openings.” This evidence was enough to prevent the employer from dismissing Cornell’s harassment claims prior to trial.
4. Requests for reasonable accommodations are protected activities under the law.
In 2015 the Legislature amended section 12940 to add subdivision (m)(2), which now makes it unlawful for an employer to “retaliate or otherwise discriminate against a person for requesting accommodation under this subdivision, regardless of whether the request was granted.” (Stats. 2015, ch. 122, § 2.)
5. Primary takeaway for employers: treat all employees with respect.
While certain conduct that is rude, unfair, and unethical may not raise to the level of being unlawful discrimination, harassment or retaliation under the law, this type of conduct will inevitably lead to higher litigation costs and employee turnover. I’ve written about how most companies cannot afford to have managers like Steve Jobs, and this case is another example. While the employer had arguments that the manager’s actions in this case were not illegal under the law, even if the employer prevails at trial in this case, the costs associated with the litigation are substantial. Unprofessional comments by co-workers, managers and supervisors in the workplace should be stopped by employers, as while sometimes they may not be illegal, it drives litigation from employees who felt that they were not treated fairly.
The appellate court’s decision, Cornell v. Berkeley Tennis Club, can be found here.