Courts have held that generally employees are not obligated to make a temporary assignment permanent where an employee requests reasonable accommodation because of a disability. This falls in line with the idea that employers are not expected to create as a form of accommodation new positions that did not previously exist. Recently, however, this notion was put to the test in Cuiellette v. City of Los Angeles.
Cuiellette was employed by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as a police officer. LAPD had a standing practice of offering “permanent light duty positions” to disabled peace officers. Cuiellette was injured while on duty, filed a workers’ compensation claim, and was deemed to be 100% disabled. He ultimately returned to work for the LAPD in a “light duty” position doing administrative work in the fugitive warrants unit. This assignment was similar to other “permanent light duty” positions to which other disabled officers had been assigned in the past. After being in this assignment for a mere six days, Cuiellette’s supervisor told him that he could no longer work because he was 100% disabled. Cuillette sued for disability discrimination, claiming he had been discriminated against and that he was not provided with an interactive process or reasonable accommodations prior to being removed from his position.
The Court of Appeal held that LAPD’s removal of Cuiellette from the light duty position did constitute disability discrimination. The Court honed in on the fact that the LAPD had a long standing practice of assigning disabled officers to permanent light duty positions in situations where they were no longer capable of performing the full essential functions of a police officer position. The court also distinguished the facts of this case from those in Raine v. City of Burbank, which held that there is no obligation to provide employees permanent light duty assignments as an accommodation. In Raine, Burbank had a light duty policy for officers who were temporarily disabled but not those permanently disabled as in LAPD’s case. As such, the Raine court held there was no obligation to make a temporary assignment permanent.
In addition, unlike Raine, LAPD had a significant number of permanent, light duty positions in which it placed disabled peace officers who could no longer perform the full essential duties of the job. It is noteworthy that LAPD, compared to Burbank’s police department, is a much larger agency. The Court ruled that, because LAPD had a permanent and available light duty position for Cuillette, the relevant question was whether he could perform the essential functions of the light duty position, not whether he could perform the full essential functions of what had been his regular position as a full duty police officer. This was the focus of the court’s inquiry because an employee who is being accommodated must meet the minimum qualifications for, and be able to perform, the essential functions of the position being offered as a reasonable accommodation.
It bears noting that it is a common practice for police agencies to have light duty positions for injured officers. If your agency has a “light duty” policy or practice, and does not intend to have light duty positions be deemed permanent, the agency should clarify that light duty positions are only for temporary work restrictions, and ensure that disabled employees are not permanently assigned to such light duty positions.