Accommodation once removed

A court’s expanded approach to an employer’s duty to accommodate a disabiity

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There’s loads of instructional case authority interpreting employer obligations to reasonably accommodate disabilities under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). But there’s little pertaining to associational disability discrimination (yeah, it’s a thing—discrimination against a person based on that person’s association or relationship with someone who has a disability).

Until now.

In the recent California Court of Appeals decision in Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, 246 Cal.App.4th 180 (2016), the Court of Appeal for the Second District (encompassing the Los Angeles area) stretched precedent to expand the FEHA’s reach in protecting employees who associate with those with disabilities.

What was that case about?

A truck driver working for Dependable Highway Express (“DHE”) with a child who needed daily administration of dialysis, who, during his hiring process, informed DHE that because he had to administer dialysis for his son on a daily basis (he was the only one in his family trained to operate the dialysis machine), he needed to be home in the evening and could not work the late shift.

So for three years, his supervisor scheduled him for morning delivery routes that would work with his son’s daily dialysis schedule. But the supervisor received a promotion and plaintiff got a new supervisor. That’s when things became problematic.

The driver told the his new supervisor that he needed morning delivery routes so that he could be home in the evenings to administer dialysis to his son. But this plea fell on deaf ears and the new supervisor changed the plaintiff’s schedule to later routes that would not allow him to get home in time to administer his son’s dialysis and refused to accommodate the schedule request. To top it off, the new supervisor told the driver that one of the morning delivery clients had complained about the driver (when, in fact, the client had specifically requested the driver!). Before long, the new supervisor scheduled the plaintiff for a late delivery route. The driver had more than he could stand and informed the new supervisor that he simply could not work the late shift. The supervisor did not provide other options. So the driver did not work that day. The following two days the driver showed up to work, but he was not provided with work, and was then let go as a voluntary resignation for not working three consecutive days. Cheeky.

The trial court rejected the plaintiff’s claim that DHE violated the FEHA by terminating him for requesting an accommodation to care for a relative with a disability, finding that there was no evidence to indicate that the termination as based on the plaintiff’s association with his child or in retaliation for his scheduling requests. But the Second District Court of Appeal revived plaintiff’s claim for failure to reasonably accommodate a disability, which the plaintiff had abandoned earlier in the case. The appellate court reasoned that the FEHA’s provisions requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities was not limited to employees or applicants, but that the reasonable accommodation obligations also extended to those with disabilities associated with employees or applicants. The Court found that the wording structure of the FEHA treats the employee’s association with a disabled individual as the equivalent of a “disability” itself that must be reasonably accommodated. Therefore, in this case, DHE was obligated to reasonably accommodate the plaintiff’s request for a modified work schedule based on the plaintiff’s son’s disability. The Court also noted that in contrast, the language of the federal ADA does not expand the employer’s obligation to accommodate to this same extent.

What is the effect of this decision?

Although this ruling only covers the Second Appellate District, it is still the only California appellate authority on the issue and could be persuasive for other districts. In any event, if the ruling is appealed to the Supreme Court, it may still be subject to further review and revision.

In any event, it is yet another reminder to employers that they need to exercise extreme care in handling employee requests that pertain to medical issues of their own or of family members/associates. Although the Appellate Court’s decision rested on a rather unexpected theory that would not have been apparent to the employer at the time, there are facts in this case to indicate that the plaintiff’s supervisor did not act with the most consistency or good faith in denying the plaintiff’s requests for an earlier schedule. The plaintiff had worked the earlier shift for three years without incident, and there was no evidence in the record that the new supervisor had a legitimate business reason for denying the plaintiff’s request for an earlier shift on the day in question as other employees were sent out on earlier shifts. If this case had gone to a jury, the jury could have possibly been swayed by the plaintiff’s sympathetic situation and the supervisor’s apparent callousness towards it. Moreover, under the facts of this case, the employee may have had a claim under the Family Medical Leave Act/California Family Rights Act if he had alleged that DHE should have provided him with a shortened work schedule due to his need to return home earlier to administer his son’s dialysis. However, this claim was not pled, and not even mentioned as a potential claim until the appellate stage.

As such, even if there is no clear obligation to grant an employee’s request pertaining to a medical or disability issue, all such requests by employees should be carefully considered with the involvement of Human Resources and legal counsel. The Castro case also serves as a good reminder that all new hires and newly promoted managers should be trained to immediately report such requests to the appropriate company official.