An employee brought a lawsuit against her employer claiming disability discrimination after she was terminated from her employment. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the employee could not state a claim for disability discrimination because the employer proved that the employee could not perform the essential functions of her job by offering her own admission that her disability prevents her from performing any work. (Lawler v. Montblanc North America, LLC (--- F.3d ----, C.A.9 (Cal.), January 11, 2013).
Cynthia Lawler (“Lawler”) worked as a manager in a retail store owned by Montblanc North America, LLC (“Montblanc”). Lawler’s job duties included hiring, training, and supervising the store’s sales staff, overseeing and developing customer relations, creating store displays, cleaning, preparing sales reports, and overseeing stock and inventory.
Lawler’s rheumatologist, Dr. Patel, diagnosed her with psoriatic arthritis on June 30, 2009, and recommended a reduced work week of 20 hours. Lawler emailed Montblanc’s regional manager, Teresa Eyre (“Eyre”), on July 23, 2009, to inform Eyre of her need for reduced work hours. Lawler telephoned Montblanc’s director of human resources, Mary Gorman (“Gorman”), the next day to request a twenty-five hour work week. Gorman asked Lawler to have Dr. Patel provide details of her impairment, her activities that are limited by her impairment, and what accommodations, if any, Montblanc could provide.
On August 4, 2009, Lawler fractured two of her toes during a fall in her home. A podiatrist certified that Lawler could return to work on September 2, 2009. Lawler called Gorman to inform Gorman of her need for temporary leave. Gorman asked Lawler to fax her documentation regarding the injury. Lawler did not have a fax machine so she went to the retail store to use the fax machine.
While Lawler was at the store, Montblanc’s president and vice-president entered the store for a routine inspection. The president asked Lawler why she was not dressed in work attire and told her in an “intimidating,” “abrupt,” and “gruff” tone that they needed to talk when he returned from surveying the competition in the mall. When the president returned to the store he made Lawler walk around the store to look around.
On September 2, 2009, Dr. Patel drafted a letter recommending that Lawler’s leave be extended until January 5, 2010, to avoid flare-ups of her psoriatic arthritis. Gorman sent a letter to Dr. Patel that listed Lawler’s job duties and asked “whether Montblanc could provide any reasonable accommodation ‘that would permit [Lawler] to resume being regularly present at the store and performing the duties of her position’” and inquired “when [Lawler] would be able to resume her regular duties.” Dr. Patel told Gorman that his recommendation that Lawler not return to work until January 5, 2010, had not changed.
Gorman informed Lawler on October 13, 2009, that Montblanc was terminating her employment effective October 23, 2009. Gorman stated that Montblanc must replace Lawler because the store must have a manager. Montblanc offered Lawler a severance payment of $17,405 in return for a release, but Lawler rejected the offer. Lawler did not apply for any other positions or otherwise try to secure employment after she was terminated.
After receiving a right-to-sue notice from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, Lawler filed a lawsuit against Montblanc. A federal district court granted summary judgment in favor of Montblanc.
The court of appeals affirmed the decision of the trial court. An employer is prohibited by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) from discharging an employee because of his or her disability. “An employer may, however, lawfully discharge an employee who ‘is unable to perform his or her essential duties . . . even with reasonable accommodations.’”
In order to establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination under FEHA, a plaintiff is required to show: “(1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she was performing competently in the position she held; (3) she suffered an adverse employment action, such as termination; and (4) some other circumstances that suggest a discriminatory motive.” The court of appeals held that Lawler failed to establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination under FEHA “because she was not competently performing her position as store manager.” Lawler admitted that her disability makes it impossible for her to fulfill her duties as store manager. She has been unemployed since Montblanc terminated her employment, she has not applied for any new positions, she has exhausted her disability benefits, and she has made no effort to secure employment.
It is unlawful under FEHA for an employer to discharge or discriminate against a person who “has opposed any practices forbidden under this part or because the person has filed a complaint, testified, or assisted in any proceeding under this part.” Lawler claimed Montblanc fired her in retaliation for opposing Montblanc’s discriminatory practices. Montblanc claimed it fired Lawler because she could not perform her job duties. The court found Montblanc offered a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Lawler. Montblanc’s stated reason was based on business concerns. Lawler was unable to perform her job duties during the two-month period when Montblanc does one-third of its annual business. Montblanc needed a manager and it was unclear “when, if ever, Lawler could perform her essential job duties.”
Once Montblanc stated a cause for terminating Lawler that was unrelated to her disability, the burden shifted to Lawler to prove that Montblanc’s stated reason was pretext for discrimination. Lawler failed to meet this burden because she points to no evidence that Montblanc’s true reason for the termination was discriminatory.
Lawler also asserted the president of Montblanc harassed her during his visit to the store. The court found the president’s conduct was related to business operations and Lawler’s position as manager and such conduct does not amount to harassment. Even if the conduct was unrelated to business or “personnel management, a single incidence of the ‘gruff,’ ‘abrupt,’ and ‘intimidating’ behavior Lawler described is not sufficiently severe to constitute a hostile working environment.”
Lawler failed to state a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress because the president’s “‘gruff,’ ‘abrupt,’ and ‘intimidating’ conduct cannot be characterized as exceeding all bounds of that tolerated in a civilized community.” While the president may have been inconsiderate or insensitive when he communicated his dissatisfaction with Lawler’s performance as a manager, “this is not conduct from which California tort law protects employees.”