Court Expands California’s Reasonable Accommodation Duty

Accommodation obligation extends to employees ‘associated with individuals with disabilities’

By Allen Smith, J.D. Apr 28, 2016
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A California Court of Appeal decision expanded the reasonable accommodation duty under state law to employees “associated with persons with disabilities.” While other courts may not glom onto this holding, managers in the state should take the accommodation requests of those associated with disabled persons seriously, management attorneys say.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires reasonable accommodations only for job applicants or employees who themselves have disabilities, the court noted. But the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) goes further, and entitles associates of persons with disabilities to reasonable accommodations, the court stated. 

The court rooted its April 4 decision in the FEHA’s disability discrimination provisions, finding that the denial of a work schedule adjustment that would have enabled an employee to care for someone with a disability may be unlawful discrimination.

Cynthia Filla, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in Los Angeles, called the decision “astonishing.” She said that the ruling shows that employers need to discuss accommodation requests with nondisabled individuals.

Bob Conti, an attorney with Littler in Irvine, Calif., said that the ruling was “a broad expansion in the duty to accommodate.” He added, “The dissent put it all together nicely. It’s a strange construction of the statute.” But he said the decision’s lesson is for managers to “never be dismissive” of accommodation requests and to take all such requests to HR.

Scheduling Accommodation

In this case, Luis Castro-Ramirez, a driver for Dependable Highway Express, a trucking company based in Los Angeles, asked that his working hours start early in the morning so that he could operate his son’s kidney dialysis machine in the evening. This scheduling accommodation was granted for three years. Then his old supervisor was promoted, and his new supervisor denied the accommodation.

When Castro-Ramirez was assigned a shift beginning at noon, he asked for another route or to take the day off. His new supervisor told him that if he did not accept the designated route, he would be fired. Castro-Ramirez declined the assigned route and was discharged.

“It is not at all clear under FEHA that employers have no duty to provide reasonable accommodations in the associational disability context,” the court said. “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. We hold that FEHA creates such a duty according to the plain language of the act.”

Holding Is ‘Fraught with Danger’ for Employers

Dissenting, Justice Elizabeth Grimes said, “I am not prepared to go where no one has gone before, to find a California employer may be liable under FEHA for failing to accommodate a nondisabled employee’s request to modify his work schedule to permit him to care for a disabled family member.”

She said the plain language of the act did not support the court’s ruling.

“The majority has indeed boldly gone into a new frontier, fraught with danger for California employers, a mission best left to the legislature,” Grimes asserted.

New Obligation

This decision “presents an entirely new obligation for employers—an obligation to provide accommodations to employees who may not be disabled themselves, but who are associated with a disabled individual,” noted Patricia Perez, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in San Diego.

When individuals request scheduling accommodations, “employers should be sure to discuss the employees’ rights under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) to see if they qualify for time off under this law,” she recommended. The CFRA ensures leave rights for, among other reasons, the serious health condition of an employee’s child, parent or spouse.

But in this case, Castro-Ramirez never alleged his employer violated the CFRA until he raised it for the first time in his appellate reply brief, which was too late for the court to consider it. However, “assuming for the sake of argument that plaintiff might have been able to allege a CFRA violation, there is no basis for finding a FEHA violation here,” the dissent asserted.

This case is Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, B261165, B262524 (Calif. Ct. App. 2016).

Allen Smith, J.D., is the manager of workplace law content for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMlegaleditor.

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