Court of Appeal Distinguishes Between "Volunteer" and "Employee" for FEHA Disability Discrimination Claims

Lozano Smith Client News Brief
August 2013
Number 46

The California Court of Appeal, in Estrada v. City of Los Angeles (July 24, 2013) __ Cal.App.4th __ 2013 WL 3831352, recently considered whether a "volunteer" worker qualified as an "employee" for purposes of bringing a claim under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). FEHA is a California statute prohibiting employment discrimination motivated by a number of factors, including disability. To bring a claim against an employer under the FEHA, an individual must be an employee. An "employee" pursuant to the FEHA is an individual who has been appointed, hired under express or implied contract, or serves as an apprentice. The court in Estrada held that a volunteer worker does not qualify as an employee for the purposes of the FEHA and, therefore, cannot bring an employment discrimination claim under the FEHA.

In Estrada, Frank Estrada, a volunteer reserve officer for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), filed suit against the City of Los Angeles for disability discrimination when he was terminated after seventeen years of service for inappropriately selling prescription drugs through his nutritional supplement company. Mr. Estrada claimed that his disabilities, rather than his involvement with the sale of prescription drugs, were the actual reasons for his termination.

In its opinion, the court addressed two arguments in support of Mr. Estrada's claim that he was an employee for purposes of alleging disability discrimination under the FEHA. First, the court considered whether Mr. Estrada constituted as an employee under the FEHA because he was "appointed" into his position as a reserve officer. Second, the court considered whether Mr. Estrada was an employee because he qualified for, and received, workers' compensation benefits from the City for injuries sustained while on duty as a reserve officer. The court rejected both arguments.

When Mr. Estrada first became a reserve officer, he acknowledged in writing that he was not an employee of the City or of the police department. Mr. Estrada argued, however, that the City's requirement that he be appointed into his position by a Chief of Police sufficiently rendered him an employee pursuant to the FEHA. The court rejected this argument, reasoning that the City explicitly appointed him to a volunteer position, not an employee position. The court explained that there exists no case law or policy regarding the distinction between a volunteer and an employee to support a different conclusion.

In the course of his duties as a reserve officer, Mr. Estrada sustained injuries as a result of two separate traffic collisions. The LAPD has a policy of treating reserve officers as volunteer workers except for purposes of providing workers' compensation benefits. The LAPD does so despite the fact that the Workers' Compensation Act excludes volunteer workers from its definition of an "employee." Through the LAPD's policy, Mr. Estrada received workers' compensation benefits for his duty-related injuries. Mr. Estrada referred to the benefits he received as evidence that he was compensated as an employee, arguing that such an employment status should extend to his FEHA claim. In response, the court explained that a policy of making workers' compensation benefits available to volunteer workers is based on the intent to make volunteer workers whole for injuries sustained while gratuitously serving the community. The court concluded that such a policy does not change the classification of a volunteer worker into an employee for any purpose besides workers' compensation benefits.

The court's opinion in Estrada establishes a statewide limit to the reach of the FEHA protection against employment discrimination in terms of volunteer workers. As such, a volunteer worker cannot file an employment discrimination claim under the FEHA, even if the worker is covered by workers' compensation, as a matter of policy. If you have any questions or concerns regarding the Estrada decision, or other questions regarding the scope of the FEHA's application, please feel free to contact one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also visit our website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or download our Client News Brief App.
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As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.