In Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, Inc., the California Court of Appeal for the Second District held that an employer’s duty to reasonably accommodate disabilities extends to accommodating employees associated with a disabled person.

At the time the plaintiff in Castro-Ramirez was hired as a truck driver, he had informed his employer, Dependable Highway Express, that he had a son who required daily dialysis treatment. The plaintiff’s supervisor accommodated his request for an earlier driving shift that enabled him to be home in time to administer his son’s dialysis. When a new supervisor took over the position three years later, however, the new supervisor assigned the plaintiff to later shifts without justification and over the plaintiff’s objections. One day, the supervisor assigned the plaintiff to the latest driving shift possible. When the plaintiff explained he could not accept the shift because he would not be home in time to tend to his son, the supervisor terminated his employment for his refusal.

In the plaintiff’s appeal of the defendant’s successful Motion for Summary Judgment, the Court closely examined the plaintiff’s claims for disability discrimination (under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA) and retaliation. In addition, the Court addressed the plaintiff’s initial claim for failure to provide reasonable accommodation under FEHA although he had not pursued this particular claim on appeal. The Court held that because the FEHA provision establishing a discrimination claim explicitly defined physical disability as including association with a physically disabled person, the same definition applied to a reasonable accommodation claim under FEHA. The Court thereby created a duty by the employer to reasonably accommodate employees associated with a disabled person.

With respect to the retaliation claim, the Court held that a request for reasonable accommodation on its own constitutes protected activity under FEHA. The Court further opined that an employee need not use legal terms or buzzwords to oppose unlawful conduct for the purposes of a retaliation claim.

As far as the Court's holding regarding the duty to accommodate, the case is expected to be further appealed to determine whether the Court appropriately addressed an “abandoned” cause of action and whether it correctly transferred an explicit definition from one FEHA provision to another. The scope of the association required currently remains unclear. In the meantime, employers should be cognizant of accommodation requests, even of an informal nature, that address an employee’s relative or dependent. In addition, employers should educate employees who are in managerial and supervisory roles to recognize and facilitate such requests.