La Vonya Price suffered a stroke in 2003 that initially left her paralyzed. After years of treatment, she eventually regained the use of her body and relearned how to speak, stand, and walk, yet she did not fully recover. Price suffered some permanent paralysis, which limited her ability to walk and the use of her left foot. Throughout 2005 and 2006, Price had to use a walker and a wheelchair because of her limited mobility. By 2007, Price’s condition had improved, but she still struggled with grasping and holding items, although she could hold small items without them falling.
Price first worked part-time for the Victor Valley Unified School District between August 2006 and September 2006 as a substitute para-educator for special needs students. She was not required to take or pass a physical examination for the position, and she did not tell the District she had a disability or any medical restrictions.
After moving to another job elsewhere in 2013, but she returned to the District again in February 2018, when she was hired as a substitute Instructional Assistant for special education students. Price was assigned to work one-on-one with an autistic student, who would sometimes run away from teachers and aides, including Price.
In July or August 2018, Price applied for a full-time position as an Instructional Assistant for special needs students. She received an offer for a full-time position that was contingent on passing a physical exam. When she failed the physical exam for not being “medically suitable for the position,” the District rescinded the offer, terminated her as a substitute, and disqualified her from any future employment with the District.
The part-time and full-time Instructional Assistant positions have the same duties and responsibilities. As a part-time Instructional Assistant, Price was assigned to a one-on-one position with a “runner,” and she successfully performed that position before being offered the full-time position, even though she frequently had to run after students.
Price sued the District for retaliation and various disability-related claims, but the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the District. Price contended on appeal that the trial court erroneously granted summary judgment to the District because there are triable issues of fact concerning all of her claims. The Court of Appeal agreed as to her first claim for disability discrimination, but disagree as to the rest of her claims in the published case of Price v. Victor Valley Union High School Dist.- E076784 (November 2022).
The District asserts the fact that Price failed her physical examination means that she was not qualified to perform the job. The Court of Appeal disagreed.
The District reads Quinn v. City of Los Angeles (2000) 84 Cal.App.4th 472 to stand for the broad proposition that an employer may always impose physical requirements as a condition of employment and thus may always refuse to hire someone who does not meet those requirements. In Quinn the plaintiff-police officer was not qualified for the position because he failed a “sound localization test” due to a hearing impairment. “The ability to localize sound is particularly significant to police officers in split second, life-threatening situations when an officer cannot clearly see.” The Quinn court held that the plaintiff’s termination was lawful because he “was never initially qualified for the position” as a matter of law.
The court Quinn court “did not hold that employers have unfettered discretion to deny employment to anyone who fails any physical test, as the District suggests.” Rather, the Quinn court recognized only the “fundamental principle” that employers may deny a position to an applicant who cannot safely perform the essential functions of the job due to a medical condition.
Because the determination of essential job functions is a “highly fact-specific inquiry,” it is usually an issue of fact for the jury to decide. The District argues Price could not perform the essential functions of a special education Instructional Assistant because of her medical restrictions. In particular, the District contends the job had physical demands that Price could not meet, namely, running after students. Even if true, Price has raised a triable issue of fact as to whether this was an essential function of a full-time Instructional Assistant.