Officer Wins $1.5 Million In Disability Lawsuit Against LAPD

Rory Cuiellette is a police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. After several years on the job, Cuiellette was injured and placed on disability leave. After his workers’ compensation claim resolved with a finding of 100% disability, the City accepted his request to return to work in May 2003. He worked less than five days before the City realized that he was “100% disabled” and, on that basis, sent him home.

Cuiellette contacted one of his former colleagues, Detective Bokatich, to express his interest in returning to LAPD to work in the fugitive warrants unit. Detective Bokatich asked him to provide a doctor’s note. At Cuiellette’s request, his treating physician authorized Cuiellette to perform “permanent light duty – administrative work only.” The note did not list or specify any particular restrictions on Cuiellette’s activities.

Cuiellette reported to work on May 27, 2003. The City assigned him to the “court” or “renditions” desk in the fugitive warrants unit, a purely administrative assignment requiring no field work other than occasionally driving to a nearby courthouse to deliver papers. In his several days in the position, Cuiellette went to weapons of mass destruction training for a day, engaged in computer training and testing, and performed regular duties on the court desk, without incident. On June 3, 2003, however, his captain informed him that the City could not allow him to work because he was “100% disabled.”

LAPD had a longstanding policy and practice of allowing sworn officers to perform light-duty assignments that did not entail several essential functions of a peace officer such as making arrests, taking suspects into custody, and driving a police vehicle in emergency situations. Although the light-duty policy remained in effect until a new chief put an end to it long after the events giving rise to Cuiellette’s case, the City discussed changing the policy from time to time. Various supervisors drafted documents defining the essential functions of a sworn peace officer.

These drafts identified as essential duties many stressful and strenuous tasks, such as making arrests, taking suspects into custody, operating vehicles in emergency situations, and training exercises that simulated such duties. Cuiellette’s disabilities prevented him from performing these more rigorous functions. However, there was also evidence that notwithstanding the essential nature of these duties generally, the City maintained permanent light-duty vacancies in the drug testing and fugitive warrants units for the specific purpose of accommodating disabled officers who wanted to continue to work.

When Cuiellette sued the City under California’s state disability discrimination law, known as the Fair Employment and Housing Act or FEHA, he won a verdict of $1.5 million against the City. The City appealed, arguing that Cuiellette was unable to perform the essential duties of a police officer with or without a reasonable accommodation, even if he was able to perform the essential duties of the court desk position.

The California Court of Appeals upheld the award to Cuiellette. The Court reasoned that “under the FEHA, reasonable accommodation means a modification or adjustment to the workplace that enables the employee to perform the essential functions of the job held or desired. If the employee cannot be accommodated in his or her existing position and the requested accommodation is reassignment, an employer must make affirmative efforts to determine whether a position is available. A reassignment, however, is not required if there is no vacant position for which the employee is qualified.

“Because the LAPD maintained permanent, light-duty positions that it staffed with police officers who could not perform all of the essential duties of a police officer, the relevant inquiry is whether Cuiellette was able to perform the essential duties of the light-duty assignment he was given on his return to work and not whether he was able to perform all of the essential duties of a police officer in general. Here, the trial court properly focused on the essential functions of the court desk position, the position Cuiellette sought, and not on the essential functions of the police officer position, the job title Cuiellette held. The trial court found that during 2003, when Cuiellette was assigned to his court desk position, the LAPD maintained several permanent light-duty assignments and filled the assignments with sworn officers whose disabilities prevented them from performing the otherwise essential functions of a sworn police officer.

“For purposes of a claimed failure reasonably to accommodate a disability, a plaintiff proves he or she is a qualified individual by establishing that he or she can perform the essential functions of the position to which reassignment is sought, rather than the essential functions of the existing position.”

Cuiellette v. City of Los Angeles, 123 Cal. Rptr.3d 562 (Cal. App. 2 Dist. 2011).

This article appears in the June 2011 Issue