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Labor & Employment Legal Alert
April 25, 2016              

Court of Appeal Clarifies the FEHA Requires Reasonable Accommodations to Employees Who Are Associated With a Person with a Disability

In the recent Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, Inc. decision, the court held that under the California's Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"), employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who are associated with a person with a disability. The appellate court's decision confirms that California employers must consider requests for accommodations by employees who are associated with an individual who suffers from a qualifying disability.

Employee had Daily Obligation to Administer Son's Dialysis Treatment

Plaintiff Luis Castro-Ramirez's son needed a kidney transplant and required daily home dialysis. Ramirez was the only family member who knew how to administer his son's daily treatments. When Ramirez was hired by Dependable Highway Express, Inc. ("DHE") in 2010, he informed the recruiting manager of his daily obligations at home related to administering dialysis to his son. For over three years, Ramirez's supervisors accommodated his need by providing Ramirez shifts that allowed him to be home in time to administer his son's dialysis. In 2013, a new supervisor changed Ramirez's work schedule to a later shift that would not allow Ramirez to be home on time. When Ramirez complained to his new supervisor regarding the need to work an earlier shift, the supervisor refused to change Ramirez's work shift and threatened to fire Ramirez if he did not comply with his work assignment. When Ramirez refused to work the assigned shift, the supervisor terminated Ramirez's employment. 

Trial Court Rejected Employee's Claim

Ramirez sued DHE for associational disability discrimination claiming DHE was substantially motivated, in part, to terminate him because of his association with a disabled family member. He also sued for retaliation alleging DHE's conduct was in retaliation for his assertion of rights under the FEHA. The trial court granted DHE's motion for summary judgement, rejecting Ramirez's theory that DHE violated the FEHA by terminating him for requesting an accommodation to care for a relative with a disability. Ramirez appealed the trial court's decision. 

Court of Appeal Found Reasonable Accommodations Required

The California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District reversed the lower court's decision finding that the FEHA provided for a cause of action for associational disability discrimination. In doing so, the court expanded its 2013 decision in Ropes v. Auto-Chlor System of Washington, Inc. (2013) 220 Cal.App.4th 635, which held the FEHA encompassed a cause of action for associational disability discrimination. 

Definition of Physical Disability under the FEHA

The appellate court found that the FEHA's definition of a "physical disability" included "a perception . . . that the person is associated with a person who has, or is perceived to have" a physical disability. Thus, under the court's analysis the employee's association with an individual with a disability is itself a "physical disability" under the FEHA. 

Elements Required to Prove Associational Disability Discrimination

While the burden-shifting framework for a discrimination claim remains the same, the court adapted the elements required to prove a prima facie disability discrimination case to the associational discrimination context. Under the adapted framework, "the 'disability' from which the plaintiff suffers is his or her association with a disabled person." With respect to the third element, a plaintiff must show that the disability was a substantial factor motivating the employer's adverse employment action. 

Duty to Provide Reasonable Accommodations

While Ramirez did not pursue on appeal his claim for failure to provide reasonable accommodations, the appellate court held that the reasonable accommodations analysis was intertwined with the second element of a disability discrimination claim, that the employee was qualified to do his or her job, with or without reasonable accommodations. Nevertheless, the appellate court held that the plain language of the FEHA imposed a duty on employers to provide reasonable accommodations in the associational disability context. This differs from the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), which only requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for applicants or employees who themselves have disabilities. 

Review Policies to Consider Requests for Accommodations

The Court of Appeal's decision results in an expansion of the requirements for California employers under the FEHA. California employers must consider requests for accommodations by employees who are associated with an individual who suffers from a qualifying disability. Employers, supervisors, and human resource managers should be aware of these requirements.

Swonetz Josi Kennon Josi Kennon Swonetz
Senior Counsel
Litigation | Labor & Employment | Class Actions
San Diego
(619) 235-1560
(619) 233-1158 (fax)
Email Josi

Grady Patrick J Patrick J. Grady
Labor & Employment
Orange County
(949) 851-5431
(949) 553-8354 (fax)
Email Patrick

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