Williams v. Genentech, 139 Cal. App. 4th 357 (2006)

Rochelle Williams, a receptionist at Genentech, was criticized by her supervisors for mishandling an incident involving company security. (Instead of following the company’s established procedure for dealing with a security alert, Williams spoke to a security officer in a “code of her own devise” – “Hurry and bring the pizzas” and “It was a sad movie.”) Williams allegedly suffered stress and the exacerbation of an existing medical condition (asthma) as a result of the criticism of her performance and then commenced a seven-month medical leave of absence. During her absence, Williams’s position was filled, and when she was ready to return, she was unable to obtain a different position at Genentech within 60 days and, consistent with company policy, was terminated as a result. Although Genentech used “floaters” to cover Williams’s job duties during the first 12 weeks of her leave, thereafter the Company decided to fill the position because the continued use of floaters adversely impacted the other receptionists and the business. Williams responded with a lawsuit alleging, among other things, race and disability discrimination, failure to reasonably accommodate a disability, failure to engage in a timely interactive process with Williams and violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act. The Court of Appeal affirmed summary judgment in favor of Genentech, holding that although Williams had timely exhausted her administrative remedies (due to an alleged continuing violation by Genentech through the date of the termination), she failed to establish disability discrimination because at the time the decision was made to fill her position, she was “totally disabled” and, therefore, was unable to perform the essential functions of her job. Similarly, at the time her employment was terminated, Williams was not qualified to fill any other available position. As for the failure to accommodate claim, the Court held Williams was not entitled to an accommodation that (1) would have resulted in her being transferred to a different supervisor; (2) would have kept her position open until she returned to work; or (3) would have placed her in a vacant position upon her release to return to work. Finally, the Court concluded Genentech had sufficiently engaged in the interactive process with Williams and that the Unruh Act does not apply in the employment discrimination context. See also Gelfo v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 140 Cal. App. 4th 34, 43 Cal. Rptr. 3d 874 (2006) (employee with prior back injury was not actually (or regarded as) physically disabled but was entitled to possible reasonable accommodation and interactive process).