California employers can establish workplace conduct policies and discipline employees who fail to comply with them. Employers also have to engage in an interactive process with employees who have a disability to explore reasonable accommodations, if any, to address work limitations from the disability. However, an employer’s duty to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability is prospective, meaning that employees are not excused for their past bad conduct just because a disability may have contributed to it when the employer was unaware of the disability at the time the transgressions occurred. A recent case is instructive.
In Alamillo v. BNSF Railway Company (9th Cir., Aug. 25, 2017), 2017 WL 3648514, an employee sued his employer under California law for wrongful termination based on disability, failure to accommodate his disability, and failure to engage in the interactive process. The employee had ten unexcused absences during the year. While the discipline process for the most recent unexcused absences was ongoing, the employee was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The company accommodated the OSA prospectively, but did not excuse the employee for the unexcused absences before it learned about the OSA. As to them, the discipline process continued and the employee was ultimately terminated when the discipline process finished because of the past attendance violations. The court of appeal upheld the employee’s termination because there could be no failure to engage in the interactive process after the violations had already taken place and because no reasonable accommodation could fix the past absenteeism since reasonable accommodations are prospective.
As this case reminds us, employers do not have to change or excuse employee transgressions that occur before the employer knows about a disability. Rather, once an employer learns that an employee has a disability, the employer should work with the employee to prospectively address any limitations from it, but past transgressions remain and may subject the employee to discipline notwithstanding the disability.