Today, the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center (LAS-ELC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of plaintiff Richard Pelz against national restaurant company Landry’s, Inc. and its subsidiaries Morton’s The Steakhouse and Morton’s San Francisco asserting claims for disability-based discrimination, failure to reasonably accommodate, failure to engage in the interactive process, retaliation and unlawful business practices. The complaint alleges that Landry’s and Morton’s unlawfully terminated Mr. Pelz plaintiff during his doctor-mandated leave after he suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Mr. Pelz began working as a server for Morton’s The Steakhouse in 2003 in Palm Beach, Florida and was transferred to the San Francisco Union Square location in 2006 and subsequently, through a series of promotions, became assistant manager at that location. In November 2012, Mr. Pelz was assaulted outside of his home and sustained a traumatic brain injury. According to the complaint, Mr. Pelz presented a note to his manager from Mr. Pelz’s physician documenting his need for a leave of absence and was told to take as much time as he needed for recovery. Mr. Pelz claims that he subsequently presented a series of doctor’s notes extending his leave to August 18, 2013 – notes which he says were accepted without question by his manager. But, on July 25, 2013, Mr. Pelz allegedly received a letter from Landry’s corporate headquarters informing him that he had been terminated.
It is unlawful under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) for an employer to discriminate against an employee based on physical or mental disability. The FEHA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, and to engage in an interactive process with employees to determine appropriate accommodations. Mr. Pelz’s complaint alleges that Landry’s defendants violated Mr. Pelz’s rights under the FEHA to be free from disability-based discrimination in employment when they terminated him while he was on a medical leave of absence. They also allegedly failed to engage in the required interactive process when Mr. Pelz indicated that he was able and willing to return to work, instead terminating him.
“Extended leaves of absence constitute one type of reasonable accommodation afforded under the disability provisions of state and federal law,” said Jinny Kim, an attorney for the plaintiff. “Such leaves from work can extend well beyond the 12 weeks granted by the Family Medical Leave Act and California Family Rights Act, as well as beyond the leave granted under an employer’s policy. Mr. Pelz requested a leave for his disability, provided a doctor’s letter documenting his need for leave and his return-to-work date, and received approval from his manager. Inexplicably, he was terminated.”
“I clearly told Morton’s that I intended to return, so I was blindsided when I received the termination letter,” said Mr. Pelz. “After a decade of developing relationships throughout Morton’s and remaining loyal and dedicated to my work for the company, I felt like someone should have at least stepped forward and talked with me about how we could work out a way to continue my employment and accommodate my disability. Instead, they stopped communicating with me.”
By its alleged failure to continue communications with Mr. Pelz, Morton’s violated the FEHA’s requirement that employers engage employees in an interactive process. Through this collaborative process, employers and employees can determine what reasonable accommodations might be possible to allow an employee with a disability to continue and succeed in employment. Accommodations are individualized based on the needs of the employee and business, but can include extended leaves of absence and job reassignments.
“Mr. Pelz did his best to communicate to his employer his need for a reasonable accommodation for his disability, in this case a leave of absence so that he could fully recover from his traumatic injury,” said Rachael Langston, an attorney for the plaintiff. “The complaint asserts that by terminating him during his leave, and by failing to engage him in the interactive process, Landry’s and Morton’s engaged in blatant disability-based discrimination.”
Mr. Pelz seeks lost wages, other employment benefits and compensation lost, compensatory and punitive damages, restitution, declaratory relief and injunctive relief.