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California Court Awards Plaintiff Damages For Disability Harassment

A recent case out of Orange County shows that California courts will not tolerate workplace harassment of disabled employees. Federal and state laws carve out important legal protections for employees who are disabled or who have a perceived disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act is the federal disability discrimination and harassment law.

In this case, a juvenile hall corrections officer was born without fingers or a thumb on his right hand. The officer was recently awarded over $820,000 for his state law claims due to harassment at the workplace because of his disability.

Disability Harassment in the California Corrections Office

The incidents of harassment took many forms. A blog created by the employee’s co-workers had postings calling him names like “one arm bandit” and “rat claw boy.” The word “rat” was used because co-workers called the officer a rat for reporting that inmates were not being treated properly.

Another blog posting by a co-worker offered $100 for a picture of the officer’s hand. The officer’s co-workers also would put their right hands in their pockets when he was around. The words “the claw” were written on his work cart. He was also often ignored in the workplace.

The officer sued Orange County under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The officer, the plaintiff in the case, sued for disability discrimination and harassment. The employee argued that since his employer did not prevent the harassment, the employer was also liable. A jury found for the plaintiff employee. The officer’s large award was for medical expenses, lost wages and mental distress related to the disability harassment and discrimination.

Orange County appealed the verdict. They said they should not be held responsible for the blog postings because they did not create the blog and the postings were anonymous. They also stated the harassment was not severe enough under the FEHA.

The Court of Appeals did not agree with the County. They upheld the lower court’s verdict and award of damages. The Court said even though the County did not create the blog, they were responsible because they let their employees access it on workplace computers. The Court also held that the harassment was serious enough to satisfy the FEHA standards.

For more information about disability discrimination or harassment, contact a knowledgeable California employment law attorney.

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