This week, a California Court of Appeal concluded that an employer may have an obligation to provide “reasonable accommodation” for the disability of a worker’s family member. In Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, B261165 and B262524 (Los Angeles County Superior Court No. BC511197), the worker had a disabled son who required daily dialysis and the worker was responsible for administering his son’s dialysis. The company had accommodated the worker for several years by providing him with a work schedule that enabled him to be home in time to administer his son’s dialysis every evening. When the worker got a new supervisor, his schedule was changed. The worker objected to the schedule change and was fired.

The worker sued for “associational disability discrimination,” contending that his termination was motivated, at least in part, because of his association with a disabled family member. He asserted several other claims, including wrongful termination in violation of public policy, but notably had withdrawn his initial claim for failure to provide reasonable accommodation. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the company, and the worker appealed.

Of particular interest in the Court of Appeal’s decision is its discussion of “associational disability discrimination.” The court noted that California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a person with a physical disability. (Incidentally, FEHA also prohibits discrimination against a person with a mental disability.) Further, under FEHA, “physical disability” includes a perception that the person is associated with a person who has, or who is perceived to have, a physical disability. Cal. Government Code 12926(o). In other words, under FEHA, a person who is associated with a person who has a physical disability is considered to be a “person with a disability.”

The worker originally asserted a claim for the employer’s failure to provide reasonable accommodation (in the form of a work schedule that enabled him to care for his son). On appeal, the employer contended that it was “clear” that FEHA required employers to make only reasonable accommodation for the disabilities of employees, but not for the disabilities of employees’ family members. The court stated that even though the worker had abandoned his reasonable accommodation claim, the issue was relevant to his discrimination claim.

The court then decided the issue, which had never before been decided by a court in a published opinion. It concluded that FEHA does create a duty for employers to provide reasonable accommodations to an applicant or employee who is associated with a disabled person.

Moving on to the worker’s discrimination claim, the court noted that under California law, a prima facie element of the claim is that a plaintiff with a physical disability was qualified to perform the job, with or without reasonable accommodation. The employer noted that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) creates a cause of action for associational disability discrimination that is much different than FEHA. Under ADA, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability, including “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.” 42 U.S.C. 12112(a). The court stated, “One instance in which we should part ways with federal case authority is when the statutory language is not parallel. That is the case here.”

In short, under FEHA, someone associated with a person with a disability is, himself or herself, a person with a disability—and may be entitled to reasonable accommodation. Under ADA, a person associated with someone with a disability is not defined as a person with a disability, but cannot be discriminated against because of his or her association with a person with a known disability.

The Court of Appeal found that there were triable issues of fact and reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in the employer’s favor.

What This Means for California Employers

The takeaway here is that California employers should be prudent when employees request accommodation to care for disabled persons with whom they are associated and should engage in the interactive process. Whether accommodation must be provided will depend upon the facts of the case. Nonetheless, California employers should be aware that the obligation to provide reasonable accommodation may apply when the employee in question cares for another with a physical or mental disability. California employers should consider revisiting their disability and accommodation policies to ensure that they are not worded in a way that limits accommodations to situations in which the employee “has” the physical or mental disability, since in the eyes of the court (at least for now), a person associated with one having a disability is considered to be disabled under FEHA.