California Cancer Discrimination: Employer Can’t Terminate on Basis of Diagnosis

A cancer diagnosis is often one of the most pivotal points in a person’s life, not only because it causes one to face possible mortality, but because it is expensive and often impedes a person’s ability to work and/or care for their family. However, it should not be the basis on which you’re fired. If you believe it is, an Orange County cancer discrimination attorney can help you determine whether you have a viable case and lay out your legal options.cancer discrimination lawyer

Rarely will an employer say, “We’re cutting your hours because you have cancer.” Instead, they will look for other excuses. They will say accommodations aren’t possible without hardship (when that’s not really true). They will say you weren’t performing according to company standards – even if you’ve had great annual reviews until that point. Sometimes they’ll start giving you poor reviews to leave a paper trail so they have a leg to stand on. This is why from the moment you suspect an issue, you should start documenting everything too.

Late last year, a Catholic school tried to argue that it had terminated a 5th grade teacher following her cancer diagnosis/revelation she’d be absent much of the school year because of something called the ministerial exception. This is not to be confused with ministerial v. discretionary duties, for which dispute can arise when civil tort plaintiffs suing government agencies for negligent acts/omissions by employees want the court to find the employees’ duties were “ministerial,” as in directed by the government absent their own discretion, making the government liable. In this case, Biel v. St. James School, the question was whether the teacher was a religious ministerial employee.

Why would this matter for someone with breast cancer?

Because the employer in this case was a religious entity. The 2012 U.S. Supreme Court held in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. E.E.O.C. that per the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, the government is prohibited from interfering with a religious group’s decision to interfere with the firing of one of its religious leaders (ministers). That means clergy generally can’t file an employment discrimination lawsuit that would otherwise be actionable.

But was the 5th grade teacher with breast cancer a “minister”? The trial court said yes, granting summary judgment to the defense. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed. As Orange County cancer discrimination lawyers can explain in more depth as it might relate to your case, the SCOTUS in Hosanna-Tabor outlined a set of four factors to determine whether ministerial exception applies:

  • Did the employer hold employee out as a minister?
  • Was “minister” reflected in employee’ title?
  • Did employee hold herself out to be a minister?
  • Did employee’s duties involve important religious functions?

Just one factor alone isn’t enough to draw a conclusion, the court held.

Here, a fifth grade teacher who taught a half hour of religious studies daily did not qualify as a “minister.” The appellate court reversed and remanded, allowing the teacher to go on with her cancer discrimination claim. In siding with plaintiff, the 9th Circuit held the ministerial exception doesn’t give religious employers the right to disregard anti-discrimination laws for employees who don’t serve leadership roles in the faith.

Contact the cancer discrimination employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.

Additional Resources:

Biel v. St. James School, Dec. 17, 2018, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

More Blog Entries:

What is a “Protected Class” in Los Angeles Employment Discrimination Lawsuit?, Feb. 20, 2019, Orange County Cancer Discrimination Attorney Blog