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Employer liable for employee's disability harassment by co-workers: Court


SANTA ANA, Calif.—Orange County must pay a disabled juvenile hall corrections officer more than $820,000 for disability harassment, including statements co-workers posted on a blog, a California appeals court has ruled.

Thursday's finding in Ralph Espinoza vs. County of Orange stems from a lawsuit filed by Mr. Espinoza, who was born with his right hand lacking fingers and a thumb. He often kept the hand in his pocket because he was self-conscious, court records state.

He sued Orange County under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act, citing disability discrimination, retaliation and failure to prevent harassment, among other accusations.

Evidence presented during a trial included blog postings that began in 2006 in which one co-worker offered other officers $100 to photograph Mr. Espinoza's hand. Other co-workers posting on the blog referred to Mr. Espinoza as the “one arm bandit,” and “rat claw boy.”

Court records show his coworkers branded Mr. Espinoza a “rat” for having reported improper treatment of inmates.

A jury found the county liable for harassment based on plaintiff’s disability and failure to prevent the harassment.

Mr. Espinoza was awarded more than $820,000, consisting of $700 for medical expenses, $320,000 in lost earnings, and $500,000 for mental distress.

The county appealed, arguing that the postings were improperly considered by the trial court because they were anonymous and the county did not create or approve the blog.

The employer also argued that the harassment was not severe or pervasive enough to satisfy FEHA requirements.

But California’s 4th Appellate District Court upheld the lower court’s award, finding among other things that there was evidence that county employees accessed the blog using workplace computers.

“Further, defendant completely ignores the other conduct at the workplace, i.e., the incidents where employees put their right hands in their pockets, the scrawling of ‘the claw’ on plaintiff’s (work) cart and elsewhere, the occasions when plaintiff was ignored, and the like.”