Why it matters

Recognizing associational disability claims, a California appellate panel ruled that an employee's claim for disability discrimination in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) can move forward. Luis Castro-Ramirez claimed that when he began working for Dependable Highway Express in 2010 he informed the employer that he had a disabled son who required dialysis on a daily basis, which he was responsible for administering. A supervisor scheduled his delivery routes so that he could be home to help his son in the evenings. But when a new supervisor took over in 2013, Castro-Ramirez was terminated for refusing to work a shift that would have interfered with his son's dialysis, he alleged in his FEHA suit. A trial court granted the employer's motion for summary judgment but the appellate panel reversed, finding triable issues of material fact on his causes of action for associational disability discrimination, failure to prevent discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy. While the court did not go so far as to find employers could be liable for failure to provide an accommodation based on associational disability, the decision provides an important reminder for companies about the risks of associational disability claims under FEHA.

Detailed discussion

Luis Castro-Ramirez began working as a driver for Dependable Highway Express (DHE) in 2010. He claimed that when he started work, he told the company he had a disabled son who required dialysis on a daily basis and that he was the person responsible for administering the dialysis, requesting a work schedule that would allow him to be home in the evenings.

The scheduling worked until 2013, when a new supervisor took over and gave Castro-Ramirez a late shift with a route that would not get him home in time to help his son. When he objected, the supervisor terminated him, telling him that he "quit by choosing not to take the assigned shift."

Castro-Ramirez filed suit under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), alleging disability discrimination, failure to prevent discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy. A trial court judge granted DHE's motion for summary judgment and he appealed.

A panel of the California appellate court reversed but granted additional briefing after the state legislature enacted Assembly Bill 987, which amended FEHA to establish that "[a] request for reasonable accommodation based on religion or disability constitutes protected activity … such that when a person makes such a request, he or she is protected against retaliation for making the request."

In an amended opinion, the panel stuck with its reversal of summary judgment in favor of the employer, recognizing a claim for associational disability discrimination in violation of FEHA while not going so far as to hold that employers can be liable for a failure to accommodate an associational disability request.

DHE argued that Castro-Ramirez's case was essentially about reasonable accommodations. While FEHA mandates that employers provide accommodations for employees who are themselves disabled, the defendant told the court that the statute does not require that employers make accommodations for associates of the disabled.

The panel took a different approach. "To us, the proper inquiry is: Even if DHE had no separate duty under FEHA to provide plaintiff with reasonable accommodations for his son's illness, was there sufficient evidence that discriminatory animus motivated [the supervisor's] refusal to honor plaintiff's scheduling request and his termination of plaintiff?"

Maybe, the court said, as triable issues of material fact existed as to discriminatory motive and pretext. "A jury could reasonably find from the evidence that plaintiff's association with his disabled son was a substantial motivating factor in [the supervisor's] decision to terminate him, and, furthermore, that [the supervisor's] stated reason for termination was a pretext."

The supervisor knew that Castro-Ramirez needed to finish his assigned route at a time that permitted him to administer dialysis to his son and had been reminded by the former supervisor about the issue after the plaintiff complained. "Despite knowing plaintiff's need to be home early, the month after [the supervisor] took over, he scheduled plaintiff for a shift that started at noon, later than plaintiff had ever started before," the court added, "even though eight other shifts well before noon were available, and even though DHE's customer had specifically requested that plaintiff—the customer's regular driver—do their 7:00 a.m. deliveries. There was no apparent reason why [the supervisor] could not have scheduled plaintiff for one of these earlier shifts."

When the plaintiff asked to take the earlier shift, the supervisor lied and said the customer was unhappy with his work—despite the fact he had specifically asked for Castro-Ramirez to make the 7:00 a.m. delivery, the court said.

"One reasonable inference from these facts is that [the supervisor], as the person responsible for scheduling the drivers, wanted to avoid the inconvenience and distraction plaintiff's need to care for his disabled son posed to [the supervisor]," the panel wrote. "Thus, [the supervisor] engineered a situation in which plaintiff would refuse to work the shift, giving [the supervisor] a reason to terminate him. In other words, plaintiff's termination for refusal to work the shift was a pretext for [the supervisor's] desire to be rid of someone whose disabled associate made [the supervisor's] job harder."

For similar reasons, the panel found the evidence would permit a reasonable trier of fact to find protected activity to support Castro-Ramirez's retaliation claim, even though he did not use terms such as "unlawful" or "reasonable accommodation" when discussing his schedule.

"The trier of fact could reasonably find that plaintiff's repeated complaints to [both supervisors] about the change in his scheduling, when both knew that he needed earlier hours to administer dialysis to his son, constituted opposition to the denial of an accommodation in his schedule," the court wrote. "Put otherwise, plaintiff showed opposition to a practice he believed was unlawful. Tied as the complaints were to his son's disability, the trier of fact also could find that [the supervisor] had reason to know plaintiff's complaints were not just an unexplained insubordinate act bearing no relation to perceived unlawful practices."

As part of the rehearing of the case, DHE argued that Assembly Bill 987 should not have retroactive effect on the actions in the case, which took place years prior to its enactment. Sidestepping the issue, the court said changes to the law were irrelevant because Castro-Ramirez did more than simply request an accommodation. "A reasonable juror could find that his repeated complaints about the sudden changes to his schedule represented 'some degree of opposition' to DHE's failure to continue to provide that schedule," the court said.

The plaintiff's other claims—failure to prevent discrimination and wrongful termination—were also reinstated by the panel.

A dissenting opinion sided with the employer, writing that "the conduct at the heart of plaintiff's claim is defendant's refusal to assign a shift that would allow plaintiff to tend to his disabled son. No authority has held an employer must do so, and nor should we." FEHA should not be construed to declare that a person with no disability ipso facto becomes "disabled" by association with a disabled person, the dissent said, also finding no evidence of discriminatory animus.

"However desirable it might seem for the law to require an employer to accommodate the needs of the disabled associate of a nondisabled employee, the courts are not free to expand the law in this way without any basis in the statutory language or other precedent," the dissent wrote.

To read the opinion in Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, click here.