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April 18, 2016

California Court of Appeal Finds Employers Must Accommodate Employee’s 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. (Luis Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express (April 6, 2016) Case Nos. B261165, B262524.) 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 ("Castro-Ramirez") after he refused to work an assigned shift. When applying to work for DHE, Castro-Ramirez informed DHE that he needed to be home by a certain time to administer his son’s dialysis. For approximately three years, Castro-Ramirez’s supervisors accommodated his scheduling needs by scheduling him for earlier shifts.

However, in March of 2013, an employee known as "Junior" became Castro-Ramirez’s new supervisor. Junior changed Castro-Ramirez’s schedule, making it difficult for Castro-Ramirez to be home on time to administer his son’s dialysis.

Castro-Ramirez repeatedly requested to work earlier routes, but Junior denied those requests. Junior would not schedule Castro-Ramirez earlier in the day even though a customer specifically requested Castro-Ramirez’s services during the earlier shift. When Castro-Ramirez approached Junior about the customer’s request, Junior allegedly lied to Castro-Ramirez by telling him the customer was dissatisfied with Castro-Ramirez’s work and that customer was the reason why Castro-Ramirez had to work the later shift.

Eventually, Junior scheduled Castro-Ramirez to work during a time that prevented Castro-Ramirez from returning home in time to administer his son’s dialysis treatment. Castro-Ramirez complained to Junior that he would not be able to administer his son’s dialysis treatment if he worked the later shift. Junior responded that Castro-Ramirez would be fired if he did not take the later shift.

Castro-Ramirez did not work the scheduled shift. Although Junior told Castro-Ramirez that he was fired, Castro-Ramirez returned to work the following three days, and on each day he was not scheduled a shift. 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.

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

On appeal, DHE argued the following:

  1. DHE did not have an obligation to provide Castro-Ramirez with a particular schedule to accommodate his son’s illness;
  2. DHE was not motivated by Castro-Ramirez’s association with his son when it terminated Castro-Ramirez; and
  3. DHE had legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for terminating Castro-Ramirez that were not based on pretext.

Castro-Ramirez abandoned his reasonable accommodation cause of action in the appeal, but the Court of Appeal found this issue relevant for determining whether DHE discriminated against Castro-Ramirez based on associational disability. Quoting Green v. State of California (2007) 42 Cal.4th 254, 265, the court stated, "[Green] has not shown the [State of California] has done anything wrong until [Green] can show he...was able to do the job with or without reasonable accommodation."

The Court of Appeal rejected DHE’s argument that a reasonable accommodation is restricted to an employee who personally experiences a physical (or mental) disability. Based on the Government Code definition of physical disability, which includes association with disabled persons, the court interpreted that any prohibition against discrimination based on a physical disability includes associational disability, unless otherwise provided.

Notably, the court stated, "[n]o 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 prior federal cases that held an employer was not required to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees who are relatives or associates of the disabled.

Dissenting Opinion
One Justice dissented and argued that this decision goes "where no one has gone before….the majority has indeed boldly gone into a new frontier, fraught with danger for California employers, a mission best left to the Legislature." Accordingly, the dissent took issue with the lack of "legislative history, regulation, case law, administrative decision, or secondary authority to support the majority’s holding that FEHA creates a duty to accommodate a nondisabled applicant or employee" who is associated with a disabled person.

The dissenting Justice expressed her sympathy for Castro-Ramirez but found there was no basis in the law to support the court’s decision.

Conclusion
As the decision in Luis Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express is unprecedented, it will likely be appealed to the California Supreme Court. Until then, employers should comply with the FEHA requirements when responding to employee requests for reasonable accommodation to care for someone with a disability, including engaging in the interactive process. We will be closely monitoring development in this case, and will provide updates as this issue develops.

For more information concerning an employer’s obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation and engage in the interactive process, please contact one of the authors or attorneys in the Public Entity Labor and Employment Group or visit our website at www.aalrr.com.

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