California Supreme Court refuses to review deputy disability discrimination case

By Carrie Salls | Jun 3, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO – The California Supreme Court declined a petition filed by Stanislaus County to review a disability case involving Deputy Dennis Wallace, who was seeking payment of $468,000 in connection with being placed on unpaid leave by the county for two years after he was injured.

Specifically, Wallace alleged that the county placed him on leave “because of its incorrect assessment that he could not safely perform his duties as a bailiff even with reasonable accommodation,” according to the opinion from the Court of Appeal of the State of California 5th Appellate Division.

Wallace lost the discrimination case heard by a jury in 2013 by the Stanislaus Superior Court, but a state appeals court overturned that jury verdict in February. The 2013 jury verdict came on Wallace’s second attempt at a disability discrimination trial. The original 2012 trial ended with a hung jury.

The county subsequently asked the state’s highest court to review the February ruling made by the appeals court, arguing that the appeals court’s decision will make it easier for injured or disabled workers to prove their discrimination claims against employers.

“The county is very disappointed that the Supreme Court declined review of the appellate court’s decision,” Stanislaus Deputy County Counsel Alice E. Mimms told the Northern California Record. “We are equally disappointed that the appellate court’s decision did not allow a jury to make a determination about whether the county discriminated against an employee.”

The appeals court found that the judge in the superior court proceedings was in error when he told the jury that Wallace was required to prove that the sheriff’s department was biased against employees with disabilities. The appeals court sent the case back to the superior court, asking the lower court to set the amount of damages owed to Wallace for the period of Jan. 5, 2011, to Jan. 30, 2013.

“The legislature decided that the financial consequences of an employer’s mistaken belief that an employee is unable to safely perform a job’s essential functions should be borne by the employer, not the employee, even if the employer’s mistake was reasonable and made in good faith,” the appeals court said in its opinion. “We further conclude that the instructional error was prejudicial and remand Wallace’s disability discrimination claim for a retrial.”

The California Supreme Court rejected the case in May, but did not give a reason on why it would not review the appeals court’s ruling.

“The bottom line is that the county is being held to a new, strict liability standard that did not exist before the appellate court decision, and that does not normally apply in the context of disability discrimination cases,” Mimms said.

The lawsuit uncovered allegations that the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department’s managers called some injured employees “limp, lame and lazy.” Wallace was placed on leave in January 2011, with the sheriff’s office claiming that injuries suffered as a result of his job left him unable to perform his duties as a bailiff.

Wallace sought payment of $468,000 in unpaid wages and benefits and damages for emotional distress.

Wallace was permitted to return to work in 2013, serving as a patrol deputy for the sheriff’s department 

“The outcome is neither fair nor proper, and we are disappointed that the Supreme Court declined review,” Mimms said.

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