Recent California Case a Win for Disabled Employees

In Swanson v. Morongo Unified School District, the California Court of Appeal reiterates an important employee right:  that a disabled employee has both the right, and priority over other non-disabled employees, to be reassigned to a vacant position that would allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job.

In this case, Lauralyn Swanson was an experienced elementary school teacher who worked at Yucca Valley Elementary School in California.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer and took medical leave for chemotherapy and a mastectomy.  When Swanson returned to work, the school district offered her a position teaching fifth grade.  Swanson objected, explaining that this would be her third assignment in three years and, given her fragile health, she would not be able to handle all of the necessary preparations for this assignment.  Instead, she asked to be placed in an open position in second grade, since she had taught that level only a few years ago.

The school district ignored Swanson’s request, placed another teacher in the second grade opening, and assigned Swanson to teach kindergarten.   Swanson again objected—she feared that exposure to all of the germs in a kindergarten classroom would place her fragile health even more at risk.  She also had not taught kindergarten in nearly thirty years and would need extra time to prepare.  The school district refused to change her assignment.  A few months later, the school district decided not to renew Swanson’s teaching contract, citing performance reasons.

Swanson sued the school district, claiming that it failed to reasonably accommodate her disability and discriminated against her based on her disability and medical condition.  She argued that assigning her to the vacancy in second grade was a reasonable accommodation, which the school district refused to provide.  The school district, on the other hand, argued that placing her in a kindergarten assignment was a lawful accommodation, even though it was not Swanson’s requested accommodation.

The trial court granted the school district’s motion for summary judgment, but the California Court of Appeal reversed in favor of Swanson. 

In California, an employer is not obligated to provide a specific accommodation requested by a disabled employee, or to create a new position for that employee.  However, as the Court explained in its decision, an employer does have a duty to reassign a disabled employee to a vacant, funded position, if possible.  Further, if a disabled employee seeks this position, she must be given preferential consideration. 

Here, the school district was unable to show that the fifth grade position was a reasonable accommodation in which Swanson could truly perform all of her essential functions, given the preparation required.  There was also ample evidence that the second grade position was available and that Swanson requested assignment to that position, but did not receive preferential consideration.  By refusing to place Swanson in the second grade position and not discussing with Swanson possible other reasonable accommodations, the school district was not able to defeat the lawsuit at the summary judgment stage.  

If you have concerns about reasonable accommodations at work or would like to learn more about your rights under disability laws in California, please contact the attorneys at Kosinski and Thiagaraj, LLP.