Ninth Circuit Rejects Disability Bias Claim Brought By California Store Manager

Lawler v. Montblanc North America, LLC, No. 11-16206 (January 11, 2013): The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit where the employee could not show that she was fired for requesting four months of  medical leave.

Cynthia Lawler, a former store manager of an upscale pen store, sued her employer and its CEO for disability discrimination and harassment under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (among other claims). Lawler, who was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis in June 2009, requested a reduced work schedule of 25 hours a week based on her doctor’s recommendation. The HR director replied to her request in an email, noting that a store manager’s in-store physical presence is essential to the job, and that managers should typically be present for at least 40 hours per week. Nonetheless, she asked Lawler to have her treating doctor provide the company with additional information regarding her condition so that they could assess whether to accommodate Lawler’s request. In August 2009, Lawler suffered an injury at home and was placed on disability by her doctor.

Soon after, Lawler stopped at the Montblanc store to fax her disability documentation to HR but had a confrontation with the CEO who happened to be on a routine inspection of the store. A few days later, Lawler wrote a letter to the HR Director expressing her concerns about the CEO’s visit to the store. Specifically, she complained that the CEO had intimidated her and ignored her disability. In September 2009, Lawler emailed a letter from her doctor to HR, indicating that she would be on disability until January 2010. Her doctor refused to provide any specifics as to how her disability could be accommodated. She was fired in October 2009. The termination letter stated in part: “Because we must have a manager in the Valley Fair boutique, we must replace you.”

The trial judge granted summary judgment in favor of Montblanc. In affirming this decision, the Ninth Circuit held that Lawler failed to show that the decision to discharge her was discriminatory because she was unable to perform the essential functions of the job, which included hiring, training, and supervising employees, managing the store’s inventory, and interacting with customers. According to the court, Lawler’s requested accommodations—a shorter workweek and four months of leave—would not allow her to perform these duties. With regard to the harassment complaint, the court held that a single incident of “gruff” behavior by the CEO does not rise to the level of harassment.

Note: This article was published in the January 31, 2013 issue of the California eAuthority.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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