We are pleased to report that our firm, Workplace Justice Advocates, PLC, has obtained a $550,000 jury verdict on behalf of our client, Joseph Snead, against his former employer, the Chino Valley Unified School District (“District”).
Below, We’ve organized the facts of the case, a breakdown of what happened at trial and a few closing notes regarding the jurors’ perspective of the testimony. We hope you enjoy reading about the case.
Case Title: Joseph Snead v. Chino Valley Unified School District (San Bernardino Superior Court, Case No. CIVRS 1101184)
Judge: Hon. Keith Davis (SBSC Dept. S25)
Attorneys: Robert A. Odell (Plaintiff), Tamara S. Freeze (Plaintiff), Angie Kwik (Plaintiff), Michael J. Marlatt (Defendant), Lisa Todd (Defendant)
Case Filed: February 2, 2011
Length of Trial: 11 days
Gross Verdict: $550,000
- Past Economic Damages: $217,000
- Future Economic Damages: N/A (not requested)
- Past Non-Economic Loss: $217,000
- Future Non-Economic Loss: $116,000
- Punitive Damages: N/A (Defendant Immune per Government Tort Claims Act)
FACTS OF THE CASE:
Joseph Snead was a 16-year employee with the District as a night custodian at Liberty Elementary School in Ontario, CA.
At 62 years of age, Joseph was injured on the job when he was instructed to move furniture in the absence of his coworker custodians. During the move, a wheel fell off the dolly Joseph was using, causing the bookshelf to fall. Joseph instinctively caught the falling shelf and injured his lower spine, requiring medical treatment and several weeks off work.
When Joseph returned to work, he brought a doctor’s note with permanent work restrictions for his back condition, stating that he could no longer use ladders as part of his job (as the climbing and twisting motion would aggravate his injury).
Joseph presented this doctor’s note to the District, who then ordered him home without pay until further notice. A few days later, HR reps from the District told Joseph that they couldn’t accommodate his work restrictions, but that they would set up an “interactive process meeting” in order to meet the District’s affirmative duty to engage in a good faith interactive process to determine if an accommodation could be made.
Roughly three weeks later, Joseph attended the meeting to discuss his restrictions and possible accommodations. In attendance were Dr. Michelle Harold, Ed.D, Director of HR, Daniel Mellon, Director of HR and Risk Management, Laurie Greigo, Risk Management Technician, and Liana Williams – a third party disability and accommodation specialist from Monjaras and Wismeyer that the District had hired to “facilitate” with the meeting.
Joseph, unfortunately, had no representation to assist him at the accommodation meeting, as his local union refused his request for help.
At the meeting, the District relied on a document called an “Essential Functions Job Analysis” (EFJA) for the position of “Custodian I” – Mr. Snead’s official job title with the District. The EFJA listed any and all possible job duties that a Custodian I might preform, and assigned percentages according to how often a Custodian would be expected to preform certain duties during the average shift.
The EFJA, however, only applied to the Custodian I position in general, and did not take into account any differences between Custodians who work the night shift vs the day shift, or differences between Custodians who work at different job sites like a high school vs an elementary school (like Mr. Snead). The EFJA also did not specify which job duties (if any) would require a ladder and only states that ladder use (again, in general) would be “occasional to frequent.”
In addition, the EFJA was created 4 years prior by the same company (Monjaras and Wismeyer) that the District was using to “facilitate” the meeting as a “neutral” third party. Mr. Snead, nor any of the other custodians he worked with, had ever been consulted about the creation of the EFJA, nor had Mr. Snead ever even seen the EFJA prior to his meeting with the District.
At the interactive process meeting, the District, including their “accommodation specialist,” refused to propose or discuss ANY possible accommodations for Mr. Snead’s work restrictions.
Instead, the District (specifically Dr. Harold) simply told Mr. Snead that, as a Custodian I, he was “expected” to use ladders on a daily basis for a laundry list of (mostly hypothetical) duties, which included:
- Hanging decorations and setting up for special events
- Climbing up on the roof to retrieve balls
- Repairing broken ceiling tiles
- High dusting and washing of windows and walls,
- Replacing light bulbs, and
- Responding to vandalism such as boarding-up broken windows
Upon hearing this, Mr. Snead explained to Dr. Harold that, as a night custodian at an elementary school, ladder use was extremely rare and only necessary once or twice a month to replace burnt-out lightbulbs (if needed).
He explained that, in his entire 16-year career, he has never been asked or required to set-up decorations or special events, repair ceiling tiles, retrieve balls off the roof, or board-up broken windows, as these duties were all handled by the daytime custodian and/or the District’s maintenance department.
Mr. Snead added that, as a night custodian, his primary job duties were to go classroom-by-classroom and clean up after the children, vacuum, wipe countertops, take out the trash, and them move-on as quickly as possible, as he had to clean 40+ classrooms plus 6 restrooms every night.
He explained that ladders were used primarily in the summer months for “deep cleaning” while the students were gone. During this time, he added, all three custodians work together as a team to do high dusting and cleaning and change all the burnt-our light bulbs, which would then last for several years.
Mr. Snead added that, with respect to the high dusting and cleaning, there was no place he couldn’t reach with the use of an extension pole – thus, he could still easily perform those duties during the summer and winter deep cleaning.
Mr. Snead stated that the only duty that would require a ladder was changing light bulbs, however, this was rare during the school year and could easily be accommodated by:
- Reassigning light bulbs to any of the other two custodians, or
- Having another custodian assist him with the bulbs (whereby Mr. Snead could stay on the ground, hold the ladder and pass the bulbs up, which was the proper procedure under OSHA regulations), or
- He and another custodian could simply trade or exchange duties (whereby Mr. Snead would clean another custodian’s assigned classroom or restroom in exchange for that custodian taking care of Mr. Snead’s light bulb).
At the meeting, the District had no response to Mr. Snead’s suggestions and instead simply concluded that accommodating his ladder restriction would pose an “undue hardship” on the District.
After the meeting, Dr. Harold then approached the head district custodian as well as the school principal and simply had both men confirm that her list of hypothetical ladder duties would generally require a ladder. Dr. Harold, however, never asked either of these men if Mr. Snead actually had to preform any of those duties as part of his night custodian job. Nor did Dr. Harold ask about or even mention the possibility of Mr. Snead using an extension pole and/or trading duties with other custodians as a possible accommodation.
Even then, neither of these men had any familiarity with Mr. Snead’s night-shift duties and could only speculate as to what was “expected” of custodians according to the EFJA document.
On top of this, Dr. Harold never even approached any of the other two (2) custodians who actually worked with Mr. Snead at Liberty Elementary school, where she could have easily inquired about the amount of ladder use at the school site and whether Mr. Snead’s suggestions would be possible.
A few weeks later, on April 6, 2010, Dr. Harold sent a letter to Mr. Snead informing him again that it would be an “undue hardship” for the District to accommodate his ladder restrictions, as she had “confirmed” that he was required to use ladders on a daily basis – citing back to the same hypothetical duties she had listed before (and that Mr. Snead had told her he has never had to perform).
The letter went on to inform Mr. Snead he would be placed on a “39-month reemployment list” where he would be free to reapply if his medical restrictions changed in the future. In the meantime, the letter instructed, Mr. Snead could simply “resign, retire, or apply disability retirement.”
Mr. Snead’s case was filed by his original attorney in February 2011, seeking claims for Failure to Engage in a Good Faith Interactive Process, Failure to Accommodate and Disability Discrimination.
Trial began on June 1, 2015 in department S25 of the San Bernardino Superior Court, Honorable Keith Davis presiding.
Dr. Harold was the first witness called to the stand. After confirming that she did not know whether Mr. Snead was actually required to preform the cited list of ladder duties, Dr. Harold stated that all of these activities were merely “expected” according to the EFJA document.
In a more bizarre explanation, Dr. Harold claimed that custodians could not use an extension pole because she once “looked at” a cabinet inside of a classroom and determined that a pole would not be effective. Ms. Harold, however, admitted that she had never before tried to use an extension pole and had never even observed a custodian cleaning the school site. This, of course, still did not explain why the District already owned extension poles for both dusting and window cleaning.
When asked why the use of extension poles was not commented on during the meeting nor discussed in Mr. Snead’s termination letter, Dr. Harold responded that it was an “omission.”
Dr. Harold was then asked why she failed to contact any of the other site custodians to discuss Mr. Snead’s work restrictions, to which she responded that neither of the other two custodians (Mr. Fernandez and Mr. Reyes) were the “site supervisor,” which was Principal Bob Whale. Ms. Harold admitted, however, that she does not know how often principal whale and Mr. Snead interact with each other or if Mr. Whale has ever actually observed Mr. Snead performing his night-shift duties.
Mr. Fernandez, who does work as a custodian alongside Mr. Snead, testified at trial and confirmed that ladders are used primarily in the summer months when all three custodians work together as a team and that he, not Mr. Snead, handled setup for special events and retrieving balls off the roof.
With regard to light bulbs, Mr. Fernandez confirmed that they are indeed changed during the summer months and then replaced during the school year only “as needed.” He confirmed that he could have absorbed Mr. Snead’s ladder duties and that exchanging duties with Mr. Snead would not have been a problem.
Critically, Mr. Fernandez stated that nobody from the District ever approached him to discuss the amount of ladder use at the school site or possible accommodations for Mr. Snead’s work restriction. Interestingly, Mr. Fernandez also added that any type of ladder use should be performed by at least two custodians for safety purposes (in contract to the District’s claim that changing light bulbs is a one-person job). Mr. Fernandez also added that, since Mr. Snead’s termination, the cite principal had changed their schedule so that light bulbs are now only dealt with on Fridays. Additionally, the school had retrofitted all of it’s existing lights with energy-efficient bulbs which last even longer and make burn-outs even more rare.
Mr. Snead himself testified and confirmed that:
- He had never been required to hang decorations or use a ladder to set up or special events
- The District’s Maintenance department is responsible for the repair of ceiling tiles as well as broken windows and graffiti
- He had never been required to access the roof of the school at any time
- He had already been using an extension pole for high dusting and washing of high windows
- The only duty that would require him to use a ladder was changing light bulbs, which could have easily been accommodated during the summer months as he could have been assigned to floor duties and/or could have use the extension pole for high-end cleaning
Ultimately, the District never put-on any evidence or even addressed the issue of custodians exchanging duties in order to accommodate Mr. Snead, as this would have been the easiest and most cost-effective way for him to avoid ladder duties.
For its defense, the District simply insisted that that Mr. Snead’s ladder duties (according to the EFJA document) were “essential,” regardless of whether he was actually required to perform those duties in real life as part of his position.
Similarly, the District claimed that accommodating Mr. Snead’s restrictions would have posed an “undue hardship” (i.e., a significant difficulty or expense), despite the fact that they never actually investigated the cost or difficulty of any possible accommodation. This, of course, still ignored the fact that exchanging duties between custodians would have cost the District nothing at all.
Mr. Snead and his wife also testified about the devastating financial impact his termination had on his family, who had lived paycheck-to-paycheck and depended on him as the primary breadwinner.
In addition, Mr. Snead and his wife testified about how the termination affected him on a physical and emotional level. Mr. Snead was shocked that, after 16 years of service, the District would treat him this way. He described how he felt during the interactive process meeting when Dr. Harold and others were ignoring the information he was giving them and had an obvious intent to get rid of him rather than attempt an accommodations.
Mrs. Snead explained how she and her husband had to struggle to pay bills and took on debt as a necessary means to survive. One particularly low point for the Sneads occurred a few months after the termination when they were forced to borrow money from their son’s college tuition loans in order to make ends meet.
The Jury deliberated for approximately six hours, ultimately finding for Mr. Snead on all causes of action and awarding him $217,000 in lost wages and $333,000 in emotional distress damages.
After the verdict was rendered, several jurors commented about what drove them to their decision, citing to the testimony of Dr. Harold and to the fact that the District never proposed a single accommodation despite numerous possibilities, including those that Mr. Snead himself was suggesting.
Jurors also commented about the fact that the District’s “neutral” accommodation specialist was clearly biased in favor of the District considering all of the past (and future) business they share with each other. Ms. Williams testified at trial that she (personally) has been hired by the District 30-40 times over the past 5-7 years.
It was pointed-out during closing statement that, in this case, Ms. Williams was hired by the District and paid approximately $125 per hour simply to take notes during the meeting. Despite her years of knowledge, training and experience, the District never asked Ms. Williams to weigh-in or perform any sort of analysis during accommodation process.
Mr. Snead and his family were overjoyed with the result and happy to finally get closure to what had become a five-year ordeal for them.
Since Mr. Snead was victorious on his claims under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), he is also entitled to recover both costs of suit and attorneys’ fees, including pre-judgment interest of 7% since December 2013 (when Mr. Snead had made an offer of settlement pursuant to Cal. Code Civ. Proc. 998 that was rejected by the District).