It’s All Relative: A California Court Says Employers Must Accommodate Employees “Associated” With a Person With a Disability

In an issue of first impression, the California Court of Appeals held that employers have a duty under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) to provide reasonable accommodations to an applicant or employee who is associated with a disabled person, even if the employee is not disabled.  Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, Inc. No. B261165, 2016 Cal. App. LEXIS 255 (Cal. Ct. App. April 4, 2016).  This holding confirms that FEHA provides broader protections for employees associated with a disabled person than the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which does not contain the same requirement.

The plaintiff in Castro-Ramirez worked for the defendant, DHE, as a delivery driver and required an accommodation in the form of a schedule that permitted him to be home in the evening to administer kidney dialysis to his son.  This accommodation was afforded plaintiff until March 2013, when his new supervisor scheduled him for a shift that began too late in the day for him to administer his son’s dialysis.  Plaintiff informed his supervisor that he could not work the assigned shift.  Notably, all other drivers scheduled that day were assigned shifts that began earlier than plaintiff’s.  The supervisor proceeded to terminate plaintiff for refusing to work the assigned shift.

In reversing the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in DHE’s favor, the court resolved any lingering ambiguity under FEHA in terms of whether employers have a duty to provide reasonable accommodations in the associational disability context.  Specifically, the court rejected DHE’s argument that a reasonable accommodation is only required for an employee who “personally experiences” a physical or mental disability.  Applying a “plain language” analysis, the court read Government Code section 12926 in conjunction with section 12940, subdivision (m), and concluded that when FEHA “says employers must reasonably accommodate ‘the known physical . . . disability of an applicant or employee,’ the disabilities that employers must accommodate include the employee’s association with a physically disabled person.”  Notably, the court’s opinion lacks further guidance on the scope or parameters of such association.

Under existing law, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and California Family Rights Act (CFRA) both require covered employers to provide time off for up to 12 weeks per year for a non-disabled employee to attend to a family member with a serious health condition or in connection with the birth or adoption of a child.  In California, Castro-Ramirez may be interpreted to now supplement an employer’s leave obligation, potentially extending additional leave accommodations to non-disabled employees who are associated with a disabled individual.

In light of the foregoing, California employers should apply great scrutiny when faced with employee leave requests.  Even where the requesting employee does not have a disability, such a request could trigger expanded accommodation obligations, for example, to assist a family member with a disability.