A New Obligation for Employers: The Duty to Reasonably Accommodate Employees Who Are Associated With a Disabled Person

April 25, 2016

By: Cathy L. Arias and

 
 
CLIENT ALERT
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

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Cathy Arias
(510) 835-6806
 
Cathy Arias represents employers in a full range of employment-related matters, including discrimination, harassment, wrongful termination, civil rights lawsuits, unfair competition proceedings, state and federal wage and hour litigation, and other related claims.
 
 
 
 
(510) 835-6823
 
Ms. Navid's practice is in general civil litigation focusing primarily on defending and protecting corporate clients' interests in various employment matters and general liability matters.  She represents and counsels businesses in employment matters, including discrimination, harassment, wrongful termination, wage and hour, and commercial litigation.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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A New Obligation for Employers: The Duty to Reasonably Accommodate Employees Who Are Associated With a Disabled Person
 
Written by:
Cathy Arias and Shaudee Navid
Is an employer liable under the California Fair Employment & Housing Act ("FEHA") for failing to accommodate a nondisabled employee's request to modify his work schedule to permit him to take care of a disabled family member? The answer might surprise you. In Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, Inc. (2016), the California Court of Appeal boldly went where no California court has gone before to hold that FEHA creates a duty for employers to provide reasonable accommodations to an employee who is associated with a disabled person.
 
Plaintiff Luis Castro-Ramirez began working for Defendant Dependable Highway Express, Inc. ("DHE") as a truck driver in 2010. Since the beginning of his employment, Plaintiff told DHE that he had a disabled son who required dialysis on a daily basis and that only he could administer it. Plaintiff requested work schedule accommodations to permit him to be home in time to administer the dialysis. For three years, his supervisor granted the accommodations. However, in 2013, a new supervisor took over and modified his work schedule. Plaintiff complained about the changes as it would not allow him to administer the dialysis. One day, the new supervisor assigned Plaintiff a shift that started later than any prior shift. Plaintiff objected and explained that the shift would not allow him to be home in time. Plaintiff was subsequently terminated because, according to the supervisor, he had "quit by choosing not to take the assigned shift." 
Plaintiff filed suit in Los Angeles County alleging causes of action for associational disability discrimination in violation of FEHA, failure to prevent discrimination, retaliation under FEHA (Gov. Code, § 12900 et seq.) and wrongful termination. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of DHE finding that it did not violate FEHA by terminating Plaintiff for requesting an accommodation.
 
In an unprecedented opinion, the Court of Appeal reversed holding that, under FEHA, employers have a duty to provide reasonable accommodations to an applicant or an employee who is associated with a disabled person. The Court pointed out that section 12926, subdivision (o), defines "physical disability" as including a perception that a person "is associated with a person who has, or is perceived to have," a physical disability. The Court reasoned that this broad definition of "physical disability" should apply in connection with unlawful practices under FEHA. In other words, an association with a physically disabled person is itself a "disability." Thus, the court reasoned that, pursuant to section 12940, subdivision (m), just as an employer must reasonably accommodate "the known physical...disability of an applicant or employee," an employer must also reasonably accommodate an employee's association with a physically disabled person.
 
In applying these principles, the Court concluded that Plaintiff's "disability" was his need to administer his son's dialysis and DHE was, therefore, obligated to reasonably accommodate Plaintiff's request for a modified work schedule. The Court also stated that a jury may reasonably infer that Plaintiff's association with his disabled son was a "substantial motivating factor" in DHE's decision to terminate Plaintiff, further suggesting that DHE acted with discriminatory animus. 
 
As the dissent points out, the majority's opinion is unsettling for employers as it may open the floodgates of litigation with respect to associational disability claims - a cause of action which is seldom-litigated. Under the Court's broad holding, employers will now need to treat an employee with no disability as statutorily "disabled" by virtue of his or her association with a disabled person. This, in turn, will trigger an employer's duty to accommodate the nondisabled employee so he or she can tend to a disabled family member. Interestingly, the Court is silent as to what type of familial relationship - if any - the employee and the disabled person must share. We anticipate that subsequent decisions by the Court of Appeal will further define the scope and nature of an employer's duty to accommodate nondisabled employees who are associated with a disabled person, and we will provide updates as this issue develops. 
 
Recommendations:
 
  1. Engage in the interactive process with employees requesting accommodations to care for disabled persons. 
  2. Train managers to recognize when an obligation to reasonably accommodate an employee associated with a disabled person arises.
  3. Review company policy to determine whether they need to be udpated.

 
This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advise