A judge ruled Wednesday that half of the claims of a Los Angeles police officer who sued the city, alleging he was harassed and subjected to backlash for not wearing a face covering while working outdoors, will have to be shored up in order to remain part of the lawsuit.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kevin Brazile issued a final ruling in which he said more details are needed to support LAPD Officer Rick Knoph’s claims for failure to accommodate and failure to engage in the interactive process. The judge had issued a tentative ruling Tuesday in which he said he was leaning toward dismissing those two claims, but after hearing arguments Wednesday he gave Knoph’s lawyers 20 days to file an amended complaint.
The judge said Knoph can proceed on his additional causes of action for discrimination and retaliation.
Knoph’s doctors advised him that due to a medical condition, it was safe for him to wear masks indoors, but not outside, according to his suit filed last July 13.
Among other medical problems, Knoph alleges he had a type of asthma, upper airway cough syndrome and scarring of the lungs, and that the LAPD did not allow him to be unmasked outdoors pursuant to his doctor’s recommendation.
Knoph’s attorney, Douglas Winter, told Brazile his client is a motorcycle officer and that there is no dispute he has a disability and so he was entitled to a work accommodation. Winter said Knoph’s doctor found it safe for him to wear a mask indoors, where he only spent a small amount of his work time.
But according to the City Attorney’s Office’s court papers, it is “nonsensical to suggest that (Knoph) can’t wear a mask outdoors during traffic stops, to protect himself and the public from COVID, but can wear a mask indoors to protect himself and his coworkers from the same disease.”
Knoph has worked at various LAPD divisions for the past 23 years, his suit states. In May 2020, the department implemented a policy requiring all officers to wear a face covering when they are in contact with the public or cannot socially distance form co-workers.
“This policy did not provide exceptions for officers with disabilities,” according to the suit.
Later that month, the department revised its policy to make an exception for officers with a documented medical exemption, the suit states.
Knoph gave a doctor’s note to his supervisor stating that the benefits of him not wearing a mask when working outside outweighed the risks, but also indicating that he should don one when he was indoors, the suit states.
From May 18 to July 30, 2020, Knoph allegedly received three citizen complaints, all alleging that he did not wear a face covering during traffic stops. However, the department found against the plaintiff in all three cases, concluding that Knoph’s actions “could have been different,” according to his suit.
The LAPD counseled Knoph about wearing a face covering and told him his actions were not justified because his physician’s note did not expressly prohibit him from wearing a mask or other covering, according to the suit.
Late in July 2020, Capt. Andrew Neiman called Knoph’s doctor without the plaintiff’s permission “in order to have plaintiff’s medical restriction altered to fit the department’s agenda,” the suit states.
Neiman “lied to plaintiff’s physician when he advised her that he had plaintiff’s permission and consent to contact her, discuss plaintiff’s medical case and ask her to change the wording of his doctor’s note such that plaintiff would not be exempt from wearing a mask at work,” the suit states.
Knoph reported Neiman’s alleged actions to a supervisor, saying he was being discriminated against on the basis of his disability and being retaliated against for requesting a medical accommodation and for refusing to participate in activity that he believed violated his rights. However, the supervisor allegedly did not report Knoph’s complaint and instead told the plaintiff, “Do what you have to do.”
Knoph then filed an internal complaint against Neiman alleging discrimination, harassment and retaliation, the suit states.
But according to the City Attorney’s Office’s court papers, doctors’ notes offered by Knoph in support of his medical condition in June and July of 2020 did not state that he was restricted or prohibited from wearing a face covering while outdoors.
Furthermore, the doctor’s recommendation is the same as the LAPD’s policy requiring all officers to wear a mask or other face covering when they come into contact with the public or cannot socially distance form co-workers, according to the court papers.
Challenging Knoph’s retaliation claim, the City Attorney’s Office states that counseling the officer for not wearing a mask “does not constitute an adverse employment action.”
In his ruling, Brazile said that because there was no work restriction for Knoph’s disability, he has “failed to allege that (the city) failed to grant him a reasonable accommodation or to engage in the interactive process.”
Brazile further wrote that given that Knoph did not have a work restriction requiring an accommodation and that the officer has admitted to not wearing a mask, the citizen complaints were rightfully decided against him.