This past month, a California Court of Appeal held that California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) of 1980 requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees who are associated with a person with a disability. In Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, Inc., Nos. B261165 & B262524 (Cal. App. Apr. 4, 2016), the plaintiff, a truck driver who began working for the defendant company in 2010, had requested accommodations to his schedule so that he could operate a dialysis machine for his disabled son. The plaintiff was the only member of his family who was qualified to operate the machine. The plaintiff's manager and supervisor at the time accommodated the plaintiff's scheduling concerns. However, in 2013, the plaintiff was placed under different managers who did not provide accommodations and terminated him for refusing to work a shift that would have made it impossible for the plaintiff to get home in time to his son. The defendant employer tried to argue that an employer has no duty to provide reasonable accommodations to an employee simply because the employee is associated with a person with a disability. While the trial court agreed with the employer, the Court of Appeal held that FEHA did require reasonable accommodations in cases of associative disabilities.
The Court in Castro-Ramirez began its analysis by noting that the FEHA protects employees from discrimination based upon their association with disabled persons since the Court of Appeals decision in Rope v. Auto-Chlor System of Washington, Inc., 220 Cal. App.4th 635 (2013). The holding of Rope states that an employer cannot discriminate against an employee simply because the employee has to take care of a disabled family member. The federal courts have enforced a similar rule under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 since the seminal decision in Larimer v. International Business Machines Corp., 370 F.3d 698 (7th Cir. 2004).
However, federal courts have stopped short of requiring employers to actually provide reasonable accommodations for employees based upon those employees associations with disabled persons. The Castro-RamirezCourt, in contrast, has gone that extra step in holding that employers must provide such accommodations under the FEHA. As the Castro-Ramirez court pointed out, this is due to the difference in the wording between FEHA and the ADA. FEHA defines "disability" to include associative disabilities while the ADA does not. Instead, the ADA expressly and specifically proscribes associative discrimination, but contains no provision on providing reasonable accommodations based upon employees' associations with disabled persons.
The message for California employers is clear: the fact that an employee's requests for accommodations do not stem from the employee's own disabilities is not a basis for denying accommodations outright. An employer will need to investigate whether the disabled person is sufficiently "associated" with the employee to trigger FEHA accommodation rights. If so, the employer will be required to engage in the mandatory interactive process with the employee to determine whether a reasonable accommodation is possible, as if the employee himself were the disabled individual.