Most employers and workers recognize that the “workers comp.” system is entirely separate from the civil law courts, with its own special remedies and procedures. Employers also generally understand that such workers comp. benefits are supposed to be the “exclusive remedy” for any workplace injury.
But the recent case of Prue v. Brady Company, Inc., offers a timely reminder that an exception to this “exclusivity” doctrine may apply whenever a workplace injury also results in a “disability” covered by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). Indeed, most medical conditions that substantially limit an employee’s ability to work — such as the need to recuperate or take leave due to an injury — will also qualify as a covered “disability.” This, in turn, triggers a number of statutory obligations including: the duty to engage in an “interactive process;” the duty to “reasonably accommodate” the employee’s condition; and the duty to prevent any retaliation or discrimination.
For example, in Prue v. Brady, the employee alleged that his supervisor terminated him rather than allow him to return to work with restrictions after he suffered a hernia at work. The lower court had granted summary judgment based on the employer’s argument that this was really a glorified workers comp claim for which no additional remedy should be allowed.
The Appellate Court reversed, explaining that the legal duties imposed by the FEHA would support not only a statutory claim under that law itself, but also a common law claim for “termination in violation of public policy.”
This is a cautionary tale for employers who may have a tendency to be complacent about workers comp. claims. Likewise, workers should be aware that the FEHA’s reinstatement and non-retaliation rights are also likely to protect their right to return to employment following a workplace accident or injury.