United States: The Heavy Burden Of Light Duty In California: Court Assesses Multi-Million Dollar Disability Award

Last Updated: April 18 2017
Article by Christopher Olmsted

Many employers offer light duty programs to employees who are temporarily disabled. Reasonable accommodation obligations imposed by California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) may come into play when administering such programs. A recent California appellate court case, Atkins v. City of Los Angeles, No. B257890 (February 14, 2017), provides important lessons regarding light duty accommodations for employers.

Trainees Placed on Light Duty

Five recruit officers of the Los Angeles Police Department suffered temporary injuries while training at the police academy. City doctors restricted their activities in various ways such that they were unable to continue training at the academy. The city placed the recruits in a "Recycle" program, which gave the recruits administrative desk jobs while they recuperated. While in the Recycle program, the recruits received full compensation and benefits.

Historically, some recruits were allowed to remain in the light duty Recycle program until they healed or were deemed permanently injured. However, while the five plaintiff recruits were in the Recycle program, the department changed the policy in order to comply with a legal mandate regarding the maximum period allowed for recruits to complete training and a probationary period. The department limited participation in the Recycle program to six months. Subsequently, the department ended the light duty program while the plaintiffs were still recuperating from their injuries.

Resign or Be Discharged

Rather than allowing the recruits to remain in their light-duty assignments, the department informed them that they had to resign or the department would discharge them, unless they could get immediate medical clearance to return to the academy. Those that resigned would be eligible to return to the academy when they had fully recuperated. None of the recruits were able to obtain the necessary clearance, and none of them resigned. The department discharged or allegedly constructively discharged all of them.

Millions Awarded at Trial

The five recruit officers filed a lawsuit alleging disability discrimination and failure to accommodate under FEHA, among other legal claims.

A jury found that the city unlawfully discriminated against the recruits based on their physical disabilities, failed to provide them reasonable accommodations, and failed to engage in the interactive process required by FEHA. The jury awarded the plaintiffs over $12 million in damages. The city appealed.

No Discrimination Against Those Unable to Perform Job

On appeal, the court overturned the jury's verdict that the city discriminated against the recruits. The court looked to the coverage definitions in FEHA. The law excludes from coverage those persons who are not qualified, even with reasonable accommodation, to perform essential job duties of the position held.

In this case, the plaintiffs could not perform the essential functions of a police recruit. The plaintiffs argued that the relevant question was whether they could perform the essential functions of the positions for which they sought reassignment. The court rejected this argument. "The plaintiffs' argument improperly conflates the legal standards for their claim ... for discrimination, and their claim ... for failure to make reasonable accommodation, including reassignment." The court continued, "In connection with a discrimination claim ... the court considers whether a plaintiff could perform the essential functions of the job held—or for job applicants, the job desired—with or without reasonable accommodation."

Because the essential functions of a police recruit included a number of physical activities that none of the injured plaintiffs could perform, with or without accommodation, they were not qualified for the position and therefore could not meet their burden of proof as to disability discrimination.

Reassignment as a Reasonable Accommodation

Although the court found that the evidence did not support a discrimination claim, it determined that the evidence did support the jury's verdict that the city failed to reasonably accommodate the recruits.

The court noted that, among other reasonable accommodations, FEHA includes "reassignment to a vacant position" with essential functions the employee can perform. Summarizing an employer's obligation under FEHA, the court observed that where a disabled employee requests reassignment as an accommodation, FEHA requires the employer to offer the employee comparable or lower-graded vacant positions for which he or she is qualified. FEHA does not require reassignment if there is no vacant position the employee is qualified to fill. Nor does FEHA generally require the employer to promote the employee or to create a new position for the employee. 

The court further determined that the duty to offer reassignment extends to "probationary" or "pre-probationary" employees, including the police recruits involved in this case. However, just as for all other employees, the probationary employees must be qualified to fill the vacant position, and the reassigned position must be comparable in pay and status.

On appeal, the city argued that reassigning the plaintiffs to the light duty Recycle program until they recovered or became permanently disabled was per se unreasonable because FEHA does not require employers to accommodate injured employees indefinitely or to convert a temporary position into a permanent one.

The court rejected this argument. Although FEHA does not generally require an employer to make a disabled employee's temporary assignment permanent or to create a new position for a disabled employee, this is not the case where the employer regularly offers such assistance to disabled employees. Where that is the case, the employer may violate FEHA by not making those accommodations for all employees.

Such was the city's mistake, according to the court. The city violated FEHA because it denied the plaintiffs ongoing participation in the light duty Recycle program, as it had done for others.

The court noted that other cases have held that an employer may change its policy regarding light-duty positions so long as such changes are made before the request for accommodation is made. In this case, while the plaintiffs were on light duty, the city did change its program to limit the duration of light duty. However, the city had a longstanding practice of allowing injured recruits to remain in the Recycle program indefinitely until they healed and could return to the academy or until their disabilities became permanent. "While FEHA does not require the Department to accommodate recruit officers injured after the change in policy by allowing them to remain in the Recycle program indefinitely, the City could not treat the plaintiffs differently than it had treated other recruit officers who were injured before the change in policy." In other words, these recruits should have been "grandfathered in" by the prior policy.

In a separate section of the opinion, the court determined that $6 million of the $12 million verdict was based on speculative future damages. The court ordered the matter back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Practical Considerations

Consider Reassignment or Transfers. This case serves as a reminder to employers that when a disabled employee cannot perform the essential functions of his or her job, the company may want to consider reassigning the employee to an open position for which the employee is qualified.

Light Duty or Not? Generally employers are not obligated to offer light duty. But there are many good reasons to offer such a program. The Atkins case highlights the importance of a well-designed, carefully articulated light duty program. When designing such a program, consideration may be given to who may be eligible, the types of temporary duties, and the duration of participation, among other factors.

Precedent Matters. In this case, part of the reason that the city was found to have failed to reasonably accommodate the recruits was that it had offered the benefit for indefinite periods in the past. When accommodating employees by providing light duty, best practice is to carefully consider that doing so may set a precedent. In some circumstances, the employer may be required to extend the same benefit to subsequently disabled employees.

Change With Care. The court in this case stated that the city was free to change its light duty program to restrict its duration or eliminate it entirely. However, before changing the rules, employers may want to give careful consideration to how the change may affect those currently participating in the program. In this case, the court determined that the city failed to reasonably accommodate the recruits who were already in the light duty program when the rules changed.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.