California Appellate Court in Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express (DHE) Finds that Employers are Required to Reasonably Accommodate Even Non-disabled Employees
The plaintiff in this case, Luis Castro Ramirez, alleged that when DHE hired him to work as a truck driver in 2010, he told DHE he had a disabled son who required dialysis on a daily basis and he (Ramirez) was responsible for administering the dialysis. He requested work schedule accommodations that his supervisor initially granted, permitting him to attend to his son in the evening. In 2013, a new supervisor changed his work schedule. Ramirez complained to the new supervisor about the change in schedule. On April 23, 2013, the supervisor gave plaintiff the 12:00 p.m. shift. Ramirez objected and explained that the shift would not allow him to be home early enough in the evening to tend to his disabled son. The supervisor spoke to a manager and then terminated plaintiff's employment. The supervisor told plaintiff he “had quit by choosing not to take the assigned shift.” Ramirez's complaint alleged a cause of action for associational disabilitydiscrimination in violation of California's Fair Employment and House Act (FEHA), claiming defendant “was substantially motivated, in part, to terminate Plaintiff because of his association with his disabled family members….” Plaintiff also alleged DHE's conduct was in retaliation for his assertion of rights under FEHA. Plaintiff alleged several other causes of action, including failure to take reasonable steps to prevent the unlawful discrimination, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy.
DHE moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff's claims arguing that under FEHA an employer has no duty to accommodate an employee based on his son's illness and that the plaintiff could not prove his association with his disabled son was a motivating reason for his termination. DHE further argued that it had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Ramirez—namely his refusal to work the shift assigned to him.
In reversing the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of DHE, the Court of Appeal found that FEHA creates a duty to accommodate employees associated with persons with disabilities “according to the plain language of the act.” The Court noted that the definition of “physical disability” in FEHA explicitly includes persons associated with a person with a disability. Hence, according to the Court, “[a]n association with a physically disabled person is itself a disability under FEHA.” Therefore, when FEHA requires employers to reasonably accommodate the known physical disability of an applicant or employee, “the disabilities that employers must accommodate include the employee's association with a physically disabled person.”
The Court went on to address DHE's argument that the plaintiff's termination was not based on his association with a disabled person and it had a legitimate reason to terminate. The Court disagreed, finding that a jury could infer from the evidence that the plaintiff's association with his disabled son was a substantial motivating factor in DHE's decision to terminate him and that its stated reasons for termination—the plaintiff's refusal to work the scheduled shift—was pretext as there was “no apparent reason why [DHE] could not have scheduled plaintiff for one of these earlier shifts.” Rather, it appeared to the Court that the plaintiff's termination was to avoid “the nuisance plaintiff's association with his disabled son would cause [DHE] in the future.”
It is important to note that this case did not involve rights for family medical leave under the FMLA or the CFRA, nor did it involve an employee with a disability. This was purely an associational disability discrimination case, one with a ruling that opens the door for employees to ask for accommodations in their work schedule to care for someone else. Employers should be aware of this decision, how they currently fulfill their duty to accommodate employees' schedules, and how they handle other accommodation requests in the future.
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