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November 2019

Los Angeles Employment Team Defends National Charity against Employee’s Claims of Disability Discrimination, Failure to Accommodate and Interference with Medical Leave

Los Angeles senior partner Stephen Ronk, partner Anthony Bellone, and senior counsel Christopher Kanjo, with important assistance from partner Erika Shao and senior counsel Nicole Lomibao, successfully defended Gordon & Rees' client against claims of employment disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, and interference with a medical leave, following a Los Angeles Superior Court jury trial. The firm's client is a large national charity, and the leading private funder of medical research regarding a specific major disease. The plaintiff, the organization’s former employee, was laid off while on leave for surgery for that same disease.

The plaintiff claimed that she should have returned to a position after her leave, and that she was wrongfully forced to interview for a replacement job while on a protected medical leave. Her counsel argued that in losing her job, she lost her identity as well, and should be awarded emotional distress of up to $10 million, if not more.

At trial, Gordon & Rees' team acknowledged that the plaintiff was in a difficult situation, but asserted she was not the victim of any unlawful employment actions. The termination was not “about” the plaintiff, but rather the charity trying to maintain positive revenues in the face of mounting costs. Significant eliminations of positions had been occurring for years prior to the round of reductions that affected the plaintiff, where six national director positions were reorganized into five regional positons. That decision to reorganize was made before the plaintiff requested her medical leave. The court agreed to give the trial team’s requested jury instruction that the plaintiff had no greater right to return to her job simply because she was on leave when her position was eliminated.    

Only the affected directors could apply for the new positions. The plaintiff did not perform well in the interview, and received negative comments from organizational leaders who had worked with her, so she did not secure one of the new positions. The plaintiff argued that her employer could not require her to interview once she was on a medical leave, and that the organization should have offered to accommodate her by extending the interview process until her leave concluded. Gordon & Rees' team explained to the jury that the decision to interview was hers, and once she advised her employer of her wish, it could not deny her the ability to apply for a new position because of a medical condition or her leave status. The team further explained that if the plaintiff had wanted an accommodation, it was up to her initiate the process, not her employer. The jury was shown texts from the plaintiff sent before her interview saying she was eager to participate.

After a six-day trial, the jury deliberated for less than 90 minutes before returning a defense verdict on all causes of action.

The team thanks paralegal Marita Navarro and project analyst Jesse Orosz for their invaluable trial support. 

 

 

Anthony J. Bellone
Christopher A. Kanjo
Nicole T. Lomibao
Stephen E. Ronk
Erika L. Shao