LAPD Reserve Officer Cannot Claim Disability Discrimination Because He Is Not An "Employee" Under FEHA - Court Rules That Providing Workers' Compensation Benefits to Volunteers Does Not Give Them Employee Status

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A California Court of Appeal recently held that a volunteer reserve police officer for the Los Angeles Police Department was not entitled to maintain a disability discrimination claim under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) against the City of Los Angeles (City). In October 2004, Frank Estrada was suspended pending investigation of a complaint relating to his alleged inappropriate sale of nutritional supplements while off duty. He was terminated three years later. Estrada filed a lawsuit against the City alleging disability discrimination under FEHA on the ground that the drug accusation was a pretext for his termination, as he was previously injured on the job and was receiving workers’ compensation benefits. On appeal, the key issue was whether the trial court properly determined that Estrada was not an “employee” for purposes of FEHA coverage.

The appellate court, in its July 24 ruling, determined that Estrada was not an employee because he was not appointed to a position in the classified civil service. Estrada received no salary, but was provided a uniform, equipment and an expense allowance. Although the City extends workers’ compensation benefits to volunteers such as Estrada, the Court held that such benefits are not remuneration giving rise to employee status. The City’s administrative code specifies that reserve officers are eligible for such benefits, but otherwise serve voluntarily and are not deemed City employees. As the Court reasoned, the purpose of providing workers’ compensation benefits is to make the volunteer whole in the event the volunteer sustains injury while performing his or her duties, which does not transform a volunteer’s status to that of an “employee.”

This case should reassure public employers that providing workers’ compensation benefits to volunteers won’t transform them into employees for other purposes. In addition, this reaffirms the general understanding that volunteers are not employees under FEHA, and therefore cannot bring claims for alleged FEHA violations.