Triable Issue of Fact Existed as to Whether Employer Must Reasonably Accommodate Employees Associated with Disabled Persons under the FEHA

Dependable Highway Express (DHE) hired Luis Castro-Ramirez to work as a truck driver in December 2009. At the time he was hired, Castro-Ramirez told DHE that he had a disabled son who required daily dialysis, which Castro-Ramirez administered. Castro-Ramirez requested the ability to end his shift early in order to get home for his son's treatments. His supervisor, Winston Bermudez, accommodated Castro-Ramirez's needs as often as he could by giving him a shift that allowed him to get home early.

In 2013, Boldomero Munoz-Guillen became Castro-Ramirez's new supervisor. At the time Munoz-Guillen became Castro-Ramirez's supervisor, Bermudez told Munoz-Guillen that Castro-Ramirez had special needs relating to his son that required him to leave work early. Bermudez never reported Castro-Ramirez's special needs to human resources.

In March 2013, Munoz-Guillen changed Castro-Ramirez's work schedule, which prevented him from leaving early enough to administer his son's dialysis. Castro-Ramirez complained to Bermudez and Bermudez told Munoz-Guillen about Castro-Ramirez's complaint. Munoz-Guillen said he would "work on that."

In April 2013, Munoz-Guillen assigned Castro-Ramirez a shift that would not enable him to be home in time to administer the dialysis. Castro-Ramirez requested another route, or to take the day off, but Munoz-Guillen told Castro-Ramirez that he would be fired if he did not drive the route. Castro-Ramirez refused to work the shift and Munoz-Guillen terminated him. On the day DHE terminated Castro-Ramirez, it scheduled at least eight other drivers to start shifts at times that would have accommodated Castro-Ramirez's need to arrive home early.

Castro-Ramirez sued DHE for "associational" disability discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) claiming that DHE was substantially motivated, in part, to terminate Castro-Ramirez because of his association with his disabled son. Castro-Ramirez also alleged DHE's conduct was in retaliation for his assertion of rights under the FEHA. The trial court granted DHE's motion for summary judgment. Castro-Ramirez appealed.

On appeal, the Court analyzed the seldom-litigated claim of "associational disability" discrimination under FEHA. FEHA makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a person because they have a physical disability, which includes a perception that the person is associated with someone who has a physical disability. Accordingly, when FEHA forbids discrimination based on a disability, it also forbids discrimination based on a person's association with another who has a disability.

DHE argued that this was largely a case involving reasonable accommodations, not discrimination, and that FEHA does not require employers to make accommodations for "associates" of the disabled. Rather only employees who are themselves disabled are entitled to reasonable accommodation. Castro-Ramirez responded by saying he abandoned his reasonable accommodation cause of action and was not challenging the court's ruling on that claim on appeal. Therefore, the Court declined to decide whether FEHA establishes a separate duty to reasonably accommodate employees associated with disabled persons.

The Court determined the proper inquiry waswhether there was sufficient evidence that discriminatory animus motivated the refusal to honor Castro-Ramirez's scheduling request and subsequent termination. The Court considered accommodation to be relevant to the discrimination cause of action. The Court of Appeal noted that no published California case has determined whether employers have a duty under FEHA to provide reasonable accommodations to an applicant or employee who is associated with a disabled person. The Court referenced the definition of "physical disability" under FEHA, which includes a "perception" that a person "is associated with a person who has, or is perceived to have," a physical disability. Based on that language, the Court determined that an association with a disabled person can itself qualify an individual for protection under FEHA. From this, the Court also noted that a person could reasonably interpret FEHA to require accommodation for associational disability, but did not explicitly determine this point.

The Court also rejected DHE's reliance on federal cases that interpreted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In rejecting these ADA cases, the Court noted that while cases interpreting the ADA are often considered, they are not followed blindly because the FEHA provides protections that are independent from the ADA, and the FEHA and ADA language applicable to associational disability cases is not identical.

In discussing the elements of associational disability discrimination, the Court referenced the previously decided case of Rope v. Auto-Chlor System of Washington, Inc., a California state court decision from 2013. In Rope, the Court identified three situations that can give rise to an associational disability discrimination case: (1) "expense" – discrimination occurs because an employee has a spouse that has a disability that is costly to the employer because the spouse is covered by the company's health plan; (2) "disability by association" – the employee is associated with someone with a disability and the employer fears the employee will also become infected with the same condition; and (3) "distraction" – the employee is inattentive at work because his spouse or child has a disability that requires the employee's attention. Rope noted that it was not an exhaustive list, but instead illustrative of ways associational disability discrimination could occur.

Within this framework, the Court determined that a jury could reasonably infer that Castro-Ramirez's disabled son was a substantial motivating factor in DHE's decision to terminate him. For example, a jury could conclude that DHE wanted to avoid the inconvenience and distraction of Castro-Ramirez's need to care for his son, thus leading to a pretextual reason to terminate him.

With regard to Castro-Ramirez's retaliation claim, the Court found one could reasonably determine that Castro-Ramirez's complaints about his schedule change constituted a protected activity—opposition to the denial of a reasonable accommodation. The Court noted that the FEHA amendments effective January 1, 2016, make it unlawful for an employer to retaliate against a person for requesting a reasonable accommodation, whether or not the employer provides the accommodation. Therefore, it rejected DHE's argument that requests for a reasonable accommodation do not constitute a protected activity.

Note:

This case was originally published in our May 2016 Client Update. There was a rehearing of the case, which resulted in this decision. The previous decision reported in May 2016 is no longer authoritative unless and until the court affirmatively re-publishes the decision.

The case is significant because although it did not affirmatively hold that an employer must reasonable accommodate an employee who needs the accommodation for an "associational" disability, it did hold that discrimination based upon an associational disability was a viable claim and that whether an employer did, or did not, offer an accommodation could be relevant to the issue of discrimination. Interestingly, the dissent in the case noted that the original decision held that the FEHA did create a duty to reasonably accommodate a person associated with a disabled person. The dissent commented that the majority's decision on rehearing retreated from its previous holding without explaining why. It disagreed with the majority's decision to not allow briefing on the failure to accommodate issue and determined that, even though the majority claimed it was not deciding the associational disability accommodation issue, its decision effectively decided the issue. The dissent illustrates the differing opinions of whether the FEHA requires associational disability accommodation.