California Appeals Court Rules that FEHA Protections Cover Employees who Have Family Members With Disabilities

A groundbreaking new California Court of Appeal ruling has expanded the rights of workers under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, establishing that not only does that law protect employees with disabilities, but also it protects employees with family members who have disabilities. In the recent case, the court announced, for the first time, that employers have a legal responsibility to reasonably accommodate employees who have family members with disabilities and who depend on the employee for assistance.

Luis Castro-Ramirez, the employee in the case, had a son who required daily dialysis. When the man sought employment as a truck driver with Dependable Highway Express, Inc. in 2009, he told his prospective employer about the child’s needs. Specifically, he notified the employer that the child needed dialysis every day and that Castro-Ramirez was responsible for administering that daily dialysis. Only people who have completed classes in administering dialysis can perform the task, and Castro-Ramirez was the only person in his household who qualified.

Dependable hired Castro-Ramirez, and his supervisor assigned him to a work schedule that allowed him to return home every evening to attend to the son’s dialysis needs. Unfortunately for the driver, his supervisors changed in 2013, and the new supervisor changed Castro-Ramirez’s schedule. The driver’s new shift started later in the day, which meant that his shift would no longer end early enough for him to get home and administer the son’s dialysis. Castro-Ramirez objected, the supervisor spoke to a manager, and, in the end, Dependable fired the driver. The supervisor claimed that Castro-Ramirez had quit by choosing not to accept the new shift.

That termination led the driver to sue his former employer for violating the FEHA. The driver’s lawsuit alleged that the employer had engaged in “associational disability discrimination,” meaning that Dependable’s decision to fire Castro-Ramirez was substantially motivated by the driver’s association with a disabled family member. Castro-Ramirez also included a retaliation claim.

The employer asked the trial court to issue summary judgment in its favor, which the court did. The trial court concluded that the driver’s case did not adequately prove that Dependable fired him for requesting the accommodation. The driver also failed to establish that the employer’s stated reason for termination (refusal to accept an assignment) was merely a pretext, given that Castro-Ramirez had accepted a shift the day before that started only five minutes earlier in the day.

The driver appealed, and the appeals court reversed the lower court’s decision. The employer had argued before the appeals court that the “FEHA is ‘clear’ that employers need not make accommodations for associates of the disabled,” but rather that “only employees who are themselves disabled are entitled to reasonable accommodations.” The court rejected this argument, stating that no published California case had ever addressed the issue. The court went on to conclude that the plain language of the statute makes it clear that the law does impose exactly such a duty on employers. This duty was plain from the statute’s very definition of “physical disability,” the court stated. That definition states that “‘physical disability’ … includes a perception … that the person is associated with a person who has, or is perceived to have” a physical disability. By extension, the FEHA’s prohibition against discriminating against employees with disabilities also covers employees who associate “with another who has a disability.”

One judge dissented from this ruling in favor of the driver, concluding that the lower court was correct in deciding in favor of the employer. The dissenting judge pointed out that federal law, under the Americans With Disabilities Act, contains no provision requiring employers to accommodate employees without disabilities who associate with others who have disabilities. Although the FEHA’s protections are broader in many respects than those of the ADA, the two laws are similar, and courts “should not construe FEHA as departing from the ADA without a clear legislative statement of intent to do so,” which did not exist with regard to the issue of discrimination against employees who associate with people with disabilities.

For helpful advice and aggressive representation in your employment disability case, contact the Oakland employment law attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our employment attorneys have a long track record of helping employees who suffered discrimination in violation of the law. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Supervisors, Stress, and Your California Disability Discrimination Case, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, June 30, 2015

California Maintenance Worker with Bowel Disease Allowed to Sue for Disability Discrimination After Managed ‘Chilled’ Accommodation, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, April 15, 2015

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