California employers must reasonably accommodate employees who are caretakers of disabled persons

In Louis Castro Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, Incorporated, the California Court of Appeal held persons with disabled relatives in their care are protected from discrimination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) (California Government Code § 12940(a)).  The Ramirez decision also held that employers have a duty to provide reasonable accommodations to applicants or employees who are the caretakers of disabled persons.

In Ramirez, the plaintiff was a truck driver and had a disabled son.  His son’s disability required the plaintiff to work a specific schedule so he could return home and administer his son’s dialysis machine each night.  Although the employer initially accommodated the plaintiff by allowing him to work a particular schedule, the employer reversed this practice and changed plaintiff’s schedule so he could no longer get home in time to change his son’s dialysis machine.  The plaintiff was forced to quit his job when the employer refused to go back to the plaintiff’s prior schedule.

The issue before the Court was whether the plaintiff was protected by California Government Code §12940 by virtue of his association with his disabled son, even though the plaintiff himself was not disabled.   The employer argued that only disabled persons are protected under the law.  The Court rejected this argument based upon language in the law that protects persons “associated with” members of any protected class such as race, national origin, gender, sex, and disabled persons.

The employer further argued that even if the employee was protected from discrimination under Government Code §12940, the employer still had no duty to accommodate a well-bodied employee.  The Ramirez court also rejected this argument.  It held that the statutory language does not limit the duty of employers to accommodate employees who personally experience physical disabilities.  Rather, under California Government Code § 12926(o), a physical disability is defined to include individuals who are associated with the person who has or is perceived to have a physical disability.  As the Court unambiguously held, “an association with a physically disabled person is itself a disability under FEHA.”

The employer also argued that the court should rely on federal case law which has rejected similar cases.  The Ramirez court again disagreed with the employer on the ground that the federal American Disabilities Act uses much more narrow language and specifically does not include protections with people associated with disabled individuals like California Government Code § 12926(o) does.

This case is likely to be appealed to the California Supreme Court, which may overturn this decision.  We will keep you advised of any developments in this case and others.

By Michael Bursteini | April 22, 2016

Legal Developments