Workplace Disability Issues: California Employers Must Accommodate Employees’ Association with Disabled Individuals

On April 6, 2016, a California Court of Appeal determined that under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) an employer has an obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s association with a disabled individual. (Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, Inc. (2016) 246 Cal.App.4th 180.)  To date, no other court has decided that the FEHA requires an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee who is associated with a disabled individual.

Facts

In Castro-Ramirez, Dependable Highway Express (“DHE”) terminated Luis Castro-Ramirez’s employment after he refused to work an assigned shift.  When applying to work for DHE, Castro-Ramirez informed the company he needed to be home by a certain time to administer his son’s dialysis treatment. DHE allowed him to work an early shift for approximately three years.  However, in March 2013, an employee known as “Junior” became Castro-Ramirez’s new supervisor.  Junior changed Castro-Ramirez’s schedule making it difficult for him to be home in time to administer his son’s dialysis.

Castro-Ramirez repeatedly requested to work earlier routes, but Junior denied those requests. Eventually, Junior scheduled Castro-Ramirez to work a later shift that would prevent him from returning home to administer his son’s treatment.  Castro-Ramirez explained to Junior that he could not return from the late route in time to administer his son’s dialysis.  Junior responded that if Castro-Ramirez did not take the route, he would be fired.

Castro-Ramirez did not work the scheduled shift.  Although Junior told Castro-Ramirez he was fired, Castro-Ramirez returned to work the next three days but was not given a route.  On the third day, another manager informed Castro-Ramirez that he was terminated because he had not worked the past three days.  DHE processed Castro-Ramirez’s paperwork as “voluntary resignation” for refusing an assignment. On the day Junior terminated Castro-Ramirez, at least eight other drivers had started earlier shifts.

Disability Discrimination in Violation of the FEHA

Castro-Ramirez sued alleging disability discrimination, failure to prevent discrimination, and retaliation under the FEHA, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy.  The trial court granted DHE’s motion for summary judgment, and Castro-Ramirez appealed.

The Court of Appeal rejected DHE’s argument that a reasonable accommodation must be provided only to an employee who personally experiences a physical (or mental) disability.  Based on the statutory definition of disability, which includes “a perception … that the person is associated with a person who has, or is perceived to have” a disability (Government Code § 12926(o)), the court held any prohibition against discrimination based on a physical disability includes “associational” discrimination.

As the court noted, “No published California case has determined whether employers have a duty under FEHA to provide reasonable accommodation to an applicant or employee who is associated with a disabled person.  We hold that FEHA creates such a duty according the plain language of the Act.”

Additionally, the court distinguished the FEHA from the Americans with Disabilities Act and federal cases holding an employer is not required to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees who are relatives or associates of a disabled person.

During the litigation, Castro-Ramirez abandoned his claim that DHE failed to reasonably accommodate him in violation of the FEHA. However, the Legislature amended the retaliation provision of the FEHA effective January 1, 2016, making it unlawful to retaliate or discriminate against a person for requesting an accommodation. (Government Code § 12940(m)(2).) On April 27, the court granted DHE’s petition for rehearing and invited the parties to file supplemental letter briefs addressing whether this amendment to the FEHA applies in this case (presumably whether Castro-Ramirez could claim he was terminated in retaliation for making a request for an earlier shift to care for his son). The petition for rehearing was denied in all other respects. Letter briefs were filed in mid-May, and we await a decision from the court about this novel issue.

Conclusion

The Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express decision is unprecedented and may be appealed to the California Supreme Court. In the meantime, school employers must comply with the FEHA; i.e., do not discriminate on the basis of disability, including an employee’s or applicant’s association with a disabled person, and when an employee requests a reasonable accommodation, engage in the interactive process.  Employers should seek legal counsel if an employee asks for an accommodation to care for someone with a disability. As with any disability issue, the specific facts of each situation must be considered.

We will monitor the Castro-Ramirez case and provide updates as this issue develops.

Categories: Labor/Employment

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