A judge Thursday dismissed 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.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kevin C. Brazile had ruled in May that lawyers for LAPD Officer Rick Knoph could file an amended complaint with more details to support their client’s claims for failure to accommodate and failure to engage in the interactive process. The judge also said at that time that Knoph could proceed on his additional causes of action for discrimination and retaliation.
However, within a week the judge’s clerk issued a minute order in which Brazile said he had rethought the issues and was once again thinking of dismissing the failure to accommodate and failure to engage in the interactive process causes of action — a decision he finalized on Thursday.
Brazile said he reconsidered his ruling allowing for an amended complaint based on four factors, including his observation that in May through June 2020, “any accommodation that would have allowed plaintiff to not wear a face mask/covering outdoors while on duty as a police officer, would have been unreasonable, inappropriate and a threat to public health, safety and welfare.”
Knoph’s doctor’s note did not prohibit him from wearing a face shield while outdoors and on duty as a police officer, which was allowed by both the state and county of Los Angeles health officer orders, according to Brazile.
Knoph’s request not to wear a face mask outdoors was “properly and appropriately rejected and denied by the city as an unreasonable accommodation request and, consequently, any interactive process would have been pointless, unreasonable and unnecessary given the threat plaintiff posed to the public by not wearing a face mask outdoors,” Brazile said.
The judge further said that while he was not addressing Knoph’s discrimination claim in Thursday’s ruling, the City Attorney’s Office may consider filing a motion regarding the validity of that cause of action.
“Given the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to be ongoing, it remains questionable whether plaintiff can prove an actionable intentional discrimination claim and whether sufficient facts have been pled to support such a claim,” the judge wrote.
According to his suit filed last July 13, Knoph’s doctors advised him that due to a medical condition, it was safe for him to wear masks indoors, but not outside. 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 during the May arguments that his client is a motorcycle officer, that there is no dispute he has a disability and that makes him 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 from 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.
Challenging Knoph’s retaliation claim, the City Attorney’s Office stated that counseling the officer for not wearing a mask “does not constitute an adverse employment action.”