It is illegal under both California and federal law for an employer to terminate or take other adverse employment action against an employee because that employee is disabled. In order to prevail on a wrongful termination claim for disability discrimination, however, a disabled employee who has been fired needs to prove not only that he has a disability, but also that he can still perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodation.
An employee or job applicant that suffers from a disability that would render him unable to perform the essential functions of a job under normal circumstances has a right to reasonable accommodations that would allow him to perform these functions. If a disabled job applicant or employee requests such accommodations from an employer, the employer has a statutory duty to engage in an interactive process with the employee or applicant to determine what manner of accommodations would be effective in enabling him to work. The employer is also obligated to reassign the disabled employee or applicant to other available positions if that is the manner of accommodation that the disabled individual seeks.
An example may be helpful to illustrate the manner in which a disabled individual's right to reasonable accommodations functions in the workplace. Suppose a woman who works as a seamstress in a tailor shop develops arthritis in her hands, and begins to have difficulty performing the detailed sewing tasks that constitute her essential job functions. Her employer may not simply fire her because she has developed this disability, rather, it must first conclude that she is unable to accomplish her work tasks with or without reasonable accommodation. If the seamstress requests short breaks throughout the workday to help her manage her arthritis pain, for instance, her employer becomes obligated to discuss this request with her and determine whether its implementation would enable the seamstress to perform her work competently. If indeed this accommodation would succeed in enabling the seamstress to do her work, the seamstress's employer is obligated to grant her the break periods.
If the seamstress's arthritis completely precludes her from sewing, and she requests accommodation by reassignment to a different position, her employer is obligated to assign her to any vacant position for which she is qualified. If the tailor shop has an opening for a cashier, for example, and the seamstress's arthritis would not prevent her from performing the reduced amount of manual labor associated with this position, the seamstress's employer would be obligated to offer her the cashier position. If there are no vacant positions available, however, the tailor shop has no duty to create one for the seamstress.
As the example above demonstrates, disability alone cannot lawfully constitute the reason for an employee's termination. Employees who become disabled and consequently experience difficulty performing their job duties should request accommodations from their employers, and should bear in mind the fact that an employer's refusal to provide such accommodations is legally actionable.
Source: Nadaf-Rahrov v. Neiman Marcus Grp., Inc., 166 Cal. App. 4th 952 (2008).