A recent ruling by the California Court of Appeal (Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, Inc. (2016) 2 Cal. App. 5th 1028) increases the sphere of influence of the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) to include reasonable accommodations for non-disabled employees known to have a relationship or association with someone with a disability.
When the plaintiff in the case, Luis Castro-Ramirez, began working for DHE in 2010, his supervisor allowed him to shift his work schedule so he could administer dialysis to his son in the evening hours. In 2013, Castro-Ramirez got a new supervisor, who changed his work hours such that he was unable to attend to his son’s daily dialysis needs. Castro-Ramirez requested an accommodation to care for his disabled son and was denied. He refused the new schedule, and DHE terminated his employment. Castro-Ramirez sued and recovered under the association clause of the FEHA.
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) includes protection from association discrimination, but that protection is somewhat limited. The ADA prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee based upon their association or relationship with an individual who has a known disability. Under 42 U.S.C. §12112(b)(4), the term “discriminate” includes “excluding or otherwise denying equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship or association.” According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the goal is to prevent employers from taking adverse actions based on unfounded stereotypes and assumptions about individuals who associate with people who have disabilities. However, associational discrimination was rarely litigated, and the intended scope of the principle involved three types of situations: expense, disability by association and distraction. (See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.8 and Den Hartog v. Wasatch Academy.) The association principle of the ADA was never intended to expand as far as the California Court of Appeal has taken it in the Castro-Ramirez ruling.
As explained by the National Law Review, the FEHA “makes it unlawful to discharge a person based on physical disabilities or other characteristics, including the association with a person who has or is perceived to have any of those characteristics.” Before Castro-Ramirez, the ADA required employers only to provide reasonable accommodations to their disabled employees, not to disabled individuals outside of the employment relationship. The Castro-Ramirez opinion expands the application of the prior ruling by requiring California employers to consider providing non-disabled employees with leave accommodations in order to aid those disabled individuals with whom they have an association or relationship.
Recommendations for California employers
The Castro-Ramirez case highlights the need for a critical eye toward accommodation options that should be considered. Unpaid leave beyond that required under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or other FMLA-like state leave laws can be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA and FEHA. In light of the ruling in this case, employers should ensure their accommodation review programs consider such options for California employees who request time to care for disabled family members but have no other leave rights available.
It’s also good idea for those with employees working in the state of California to conduct regular reviews of their policies to ensure they prohibit all forms of discrimination. Additionally, human resources professionals should always listen closely and give serious consideration to employees’ requests for leave accommodations for disabled individuals with whom they are associated.
Employers must recognize that the ADA does not require a family relationship for an individual to be protected by the association provision. And of course, employment decisions should not be based on unfounded stereotypes and assumptions about individuals who associate with people who have disabilities.
Should you have any questions about this ruling, please contact your Sedgwick client services representative.
Kimberly Webb, national technical compliance director