Jury Could Find Termination Substantially Motivated by Disability

Although Employer Had Tentatively Placed Employee RIF List Before Becoming Aware of Her Disability, It Did Not Terminate Her Employment Until After It Was Aware Of Her Disability – A Reasonable Jury Could Find That Employee’s Ultimate Termination Was Substantially Motivated By Her Disability

Lin v. Kaiser Found. Hosps., 88 Cal.App.5th 712 (2023)

Suchin I. Lin was employed by Kaiser as an IT Engineer. Lin became disabled as a result of a fall in the workplace which caused her to suffer an injury to her left shoulder. A doctor issued a work status report placing Lin on modified duty with restrictions requiring Lin to use a sling and to limit the use of her left arm. The doctor also indicated that surgery might be necessary. As part of a round of employee layoffs Kaiser planned, at least tentatively, to terminate Lin before Lin became disabled. Following her disability, Kaiser went forward with her layoff. Lin sued for disability discrimination. Kaiser filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it was entitled to summary adjudication of Lin’s disability discrimination and retaliation claims because the decision-maker had made the decision to eliminate Lin’s position in a RIF before Lin sustained her disability. Lin opposed the motion arguing that, while her name was selected for the initial RIF list prior to her disability, this “proposed” list was “subject to further review,” as reflected in the list’s gradual reduction from 31 employees to the 17 who were ultimately laid off. She further argued that her ultimate termination was a result of the decision-maker’s reliance on her supervisor’s post-disability assessment of her, particularly a post-disability email to the decision-maker rating her performance much lower than that of her teammates. The trial court granted Kaiser’s motion.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed. The Court of Appeal held that Kaiser’s plan to terminate Lin before she became disabled, by itself, was (of course) not discrimination against Lin because of her disability. But Kaiser did not complete its layoff plans—or, a reasonable jury could find, make its final determination to terminate Lin—until after Lin had become disabled. The Court of Appeal found that there was evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that Kaiser’s ultimate decision to terminate Lin was motivated, at least in substantial part, by concerns Kaiser had about Lin’s disability. The Court of Appeal found the following facts important in its decision:

  • Before Lin sustained her disability, neither her then-current supervisor nor any prior supervisor had given her a negative performance evaluation.
  • After Lin sustained her disability, her then-current supervisor began giving her negative feedback and a poor performance evaluation.
  • Lin’s then-current supervisor’s criticisms, in large part, revolved around his concerns about her “slow delivery” and her “pace of execution” – concerns that a jury could find stemmed directly from her disability.

Lin’s then-current supervisor agreed to Lin’s request for light-duty work as a form of accommodation for her disability (but he never actually provided her with light-duty work). His agreement to assign Lin lighter tasks supported a reasonable inference that he believed her disability prevented her from handling her usual workload.

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