Johnson v. Chevron


January 2012, Seattle Washington

Bruce Johnson settled his discrimination case against Chevron after winning an important appeal that established how disability discrimination cases will be handled by the Courts in Washington for years to come.  Jack Sheridan said, “We are very pleased that Bruce and his family can put this behind them and get on with their lives.  They are heroes for standing up against discrimination.”  The terms of the settlement are confidential.  

In late 2011, the Washington State Supreme Court declined to review the December 2010 decision by the Court of Appeals granting a new trial to former Chevron truck driver Bruce Johnson.  Chevron had fought hard to get Supreme Court review having enlisted the aid of the Washington Defense Trial Lawyers Association and the Association of Washington Business to submit “friend of the court” briefs arguing for a return to the old days when employers could more easily ignore requests for accommodation by their employees by claiming they were not “medically necessary,” which was a confusing and undefined term.  The Supreme Court’s decision to deny review is a rejection of that standard and means that more Washington employees with disabilities will obtain the accommodations guaranteed by the Washington Law Against Discrimination. 

Johnson v. Chevron, 159 Wn. App. 18, 244 P.3d 438 (2010).  In December 2010, in a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals ordered the trial court to grant a new trial in the disability discrimination case brought by Bruce Johnson against Chevron in 2008.  King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector, the trial judge, had dismissed before trial Mr. Johnson’s main claim that Chevron failed to accommodate his back injury holding that Mr. Johnson could not show that his proposed accommodation was medically necessary.  The Court of Appeals found the trial court’s ruling to be reversible error. Also, at Chevron’s request, the trial judge erroneously instructed the jury that Mr. Johnson must prove that he was treated unfairly as compared with other workers.  The Court held that “This is not the law and the error was not harmless.”   

Jack stated, “This is a great victory for victims of disability discrimination because it clarifies two important legal issues.  First, medical necessity is not an element that needs to be proved in a failure to accommodate case.”  As the Court of Appeals said, the issue ‘is whether Johnson’s impairment had a substantially limiting effect upon his ability to perform the job such that the accommodation was reasonably necessary, or doing the job without accommodation was likely to aggravate the impairment such that it became substantially limiting.’  Second, it’s been the law in Washington since 1994 that plaintiffs can prove discrimination by showing that discrimination was a substantial factor in the adverse action. But here, the judge told the jury that Mr. Johnson additionally had to show that he was treated worse than his co-workers (called comparators), which has never been the law, and since we had not put on any comparator evidence, the outcome was predictable.”  

Those decisions at the trial level required Mr. Johnson to file an appeal and cost him more than a year waiting for justice.  Court of Appeals opinion author Judge Anne Ellington (concurrences by Judges Ann Shindler and Mary Kay Becker), did a great job in clearly stating the law and in correcting the errors below.  Mr. Johnson is ready to get this case resolved fairly in front of a new jury.  

The complaint alleges that Chevron knew Bruce Johnson had chronic back pain caused by his employment with Chevron, and did nothing to accommodate him except to send him home or place him on light duty. Chevron made no effort to work with Mr. Johnson or his physicians to find an accommodation so that he could continue on the job as a tanker truck driver. Once Chevron disallowed the use of Mr. Johnson’s requested accommodation, an ergonomic fuel hose drainer, it made no further effort to find an alternative accommodation.

A new trial is set for January 2012.

Click Here for the Court of Appeals Decision.