California Court Holds That Employer May Be Liable for “Associational” Disability Discrimination
Today, a California Court of Appeal issued its opinion in Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, holding that the plaintiff-employee had a colorable claim for disability discrimination against his employer – even though the plaintiff-employee was not himself disabled. Instead, the employee’s son was disabled with a kidney condition that required daily dialysis treatments. His father, who was employed by DHE, was the only one in the family trained to administer the dialysis treatments. Based on his daily need to assist with treating his son, the employee requested to work an early shift that allowed him to be home in the evening to administer the dialysis. For some time, the company accommodated the employee’s scheduling request. Then, a new supervisor took over and assigned the employee to work a later shift. The employee refused, stating that it interfered with his ability to be home for his son’s treatments. The employee was fired for refusing to work as scheduled.
Bad facts often lead to bad law....
Plaintiff sued DHE for disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, failure to prevent discrimination, and related claims under California law. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of DHE. Among other things, the trial court ruled that DHE did not have a duty to accommodate the disability of an employee’s family member. Rather, the Fair Employment and Housing Act’s (“FEHA”) accommodation requirement provides only that employers must reasonably accommodate the needs of “applicants or employees” with disabilities. The trial court held that the discrimination-based claims similarly failed because there was no evidence that DHE terminated plaintiff’s employment based on some sort of discriminatory animus due to the fact that he had a disabled son. Instead, the evidence showed that the employer terminated the plaintiff’s employment because he refused to work his assigned shift. Plaintiff appealed the adverse ruling as to the disability discrimination, failure to prevent discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy claims. Plaintiff abandoned his failure to accommodate claim.
Earlier this year, in April, the Court of Appeal issued a decision reversing the trial court’s ruling and holding (1) that an employer has a duty to reasonably accommodate an employee who is associated with a disabled person; and (2) California recognizes a claim for associational disability discrimination. The Court of Appeal further held that plaintiff was entitled to a trial on his claims. DHE petitioned for a rehearing by the Court of Appeal, which was granted.
This week, the Court of Appeal issued its decision on rehearing. The Court of Appeal retreated somewhat from its prior decision, this time holding that it “need not decide” whether California requires employers to reasonably accommodate the needs of an employee who is “associated” with a disabled person. The Court held that it was not necessary to determine this issue because the plaintiff had abandoned his failure to accommodate claim. Nonetheless, despite having expressly stated that it was unnecessary to decide the issue, the Court of Appeal offered up that this was an unsettled issue in California and that the provisions of FEHA, when read together, could be interpreted to require accommodation of employees who are not themselves disabled, but who are associated with others (e.g. family members) who are disabled. The Court even went so far as to suggest that the term “disabled” in FEHA includes employees who are associated with a disabled person.
The Court of Appeal then held that regardless of whether or not employers have a duty to accommodate an employee who is associated with a disabled person, California certainly recognizes a claim for associational disability discrimination – meaning that employers cannot discriminate against an employee for having a disabled family member. The Court held that plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence to support a finding of associational discrimination. Specifically, plaintiff presented evidence that despite expressly informing his new supervisor of his need to be home in the evenings, his supervisor scheduled him to a shift that started at noon – later than he had ever been scheduled to work before. The supervisor did this even though he had scheduled at least 8 other drivers for earlier shifts that day and then lied to the plaintiff about the reason for denying plaintiff an early shift. The supervisor told plaintiff that a customer had complained about plaintiff’s service and that was the reason plaintiff was being taken off of that early route. This apparently was false. According to the Court, this type of evidence could support a finding that the supervisor simply did not want to deal with plaintiff’s “distraction” associated with having a disabled family member. For these reasons, the Court of Appeal held that plaintiff’s claims should not have been summarily dismissed by the trial court and that plaintiff was entitled to have a jury decide the claims.
Justice Grimes authored a strong dissent, arguing that the majority opinion is wrong and that the trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of DHE.
Expect this case to be headed toward a petition for review before the California Supreme Court. In the meantime, employers should be aware that there is some uncertainty in California as to whether an employer has a statutory obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to employees with disabled family members. Employers may wish to seek legal counsel in managing accommodation requests in such circumstances. Additionally, employers are reminded that there are now two pubilshed California cases (this case and an earlier case entitled Rope v. AutoChlor) holding that California recognizes a claim for associational disability discrimination. Employers should use caution in managing and/or terminating employees who have raised issues concerning having a family member with a disability (i.e. as impacting the employee’s job performance and/or attendance).