Kevin May v. City of Los Angeles: A Cautionary Tale in Labor Relations

Bibianne FellA significant legal battle that began in 2018 recently came to an end, resulting in four Los Angeles Airport Police Department (LAXPD) officers winning a major class-action adverse employment action case against Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the City of Los Angeles and former LAXPD Chief David Maggard Jr.

The case, Kevin May v. City of Los Angeles, stems from officer allegations that they received “a slew of adverse employment actions” from their supervisors — including promotion denials — after their treating physicians recommended that the injured officers wear police-issued load-bearing vests while on duty. The officers assert that they were denied promotion on multiple occasions despite being highly qualified to fulfill the positions, and that LAWA continuously and unceasingly promoted objectively less qualified and lower-scoring police officers over them.

The officers also alleged that they received harassment, retaliation and discrimination based on their disabilities, and were never provided reasonable accommodations as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“This case serves as a cautionary tale to our current and future management to work with labor rather than be so bullheaded that you violate longstanding labor laws and union practices,” LAAPOA President Marshall McClain says. “It’s crucial that labor unions meet with management about everything that revolves around changes to hours, wages and working conditions, per the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act.”

Attorney Bibianne Fell, who represented the officers, offered valuable insights into the significance of these kinds of cases and their impact on labor–management relations.

Why is Kevin May v. City of Los Angeles significant for officers and labor unions alike?

First, it’s important to note that the matter was resolved confidentially in a mutually acceptable way to both parties. I cannot go into any specifics on this particular case.

Separate and apart from any specific case, as a general matter, police officers often have injuries to their lower backs because of injuries on duty. The standard duty belt, called a “Sam Browne belt,” concentrates the weight of equipment around the officer’s waist. This causes officers pain in their lower back and hips by aggravating the prior injury. In some cases, wearing the belt itself day in and day out causes a cumulative injury. The injury is so common that occupational medicine physicians have named it “Sam Browne syndrome.” Many officers rely on the ability to use a load-bearing outer vest, designed to distribute the weight of the officer’s equipment across the body, to alleviate pain and allow officers to continue working.

Employers have a duty to reasonably accommodate employees with disabilities. I believe the load-bearing vest is a reasonable accommodation. There may be other reasonable accommodations depending on the officer’s specific circumstances. If there is more than one reasonable accommodation, the employer may choose which accommodation to offer.

What are some general arguments that could be made to win a case like this?

In general, in California, an employer with five or more employees must reasonably accommodate individuals with physical or mental disabilities to apply for jobs and to perform the essential functions of their jobs unless it would cause an undue hardship. Furthermore, an employer may not retaliate against an employee for seeking out such an accommodation in the form of an adverse employment action.

Bibianne FellIn your opinion, what lessons can management (such as LAWA) learn from this case about the importance of maintaining relationships with labor organizations and the potential consequences of disregarding labor laws and union practices?

In general, employers need to be aware of the law, make their supervisors aware of the law and follow the law — even if they don’t want to.

Every officer I have spoken with across different departments enjoys what they do and wants to continue doing their job for as long as they physically can. That desire to continue serving their communities is so valuable.

As managers, speaking with employees with an open mind is important. Managers should approach disabled employees as partners and problem-solvers. After all, these are employees with valuable experience who want to work.

Why is it important for officers to utilize legal representation when these types of situations occur?

Employment laws are complex, and any employee seeking to navigate their employment rights should be guided by someone with experience in that area.

What advice do you have for other employees or unions who might find themselves in similar situations, and how can they better protect their rights and interests when facing labor-related issues?

Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself in a professional manner. Just like any employer should approach the disabled employee as a partner, employees should approach their employer like a partner. Work together to find a reasonable accommodation. Be guided by your medical professionals. Keep an open mind and try different potential solutions to see if they will work for you. Always be honest with your providers and employer. If you do all of that and your employer is not doing its part, seek legal representation.

What impact do you believe this case will have on labor management and labor relations, both within the Los Angeles Airport Police Department and more broadly?

In general, our civil justice system exists to resolve disputes between parties who don’t necessarily see eye to eye. I think the ability for parties to mutually resolve their disputes is a sign of a healthy society. That’s how our system of justice is supposed to work.

Note: Attorney Bibianne Fell’s comments are only related to general law and not to any specific case.