Associational disability discrimination
Does California law require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees who are associated with a disabled person?
On April 4, 2016, the Second District Court of Appeal decided whether an employee could pursue a disability discrimination claim based on his employer failing to provide him an accommodation to care for his disabled son. In Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, Inc. (2016) 246 Cal.App.4th 180, Mr. Castro-Ramirez sued Dependable Highway Express, Inc. for disability discrimination, as well as failure to prevent discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy.
In this case, Mr. Castro-Ramirez worked as a truck driver. He told his employer he needed to administer daily dialysis for his son. For several years, Mr. Castro-Ramirez’s supervisors scheduled him so that he could be home at night for his son’s dialysis. That schedule accommodation changed when a new supervisor took over and ultimately terminated Mr. Castro-Ramirez for refusing to work a shift that did not permit him to be home in time for his son’s dialysis.
The trial court rejected Mr. Castro-Ramirez’s theory that his employer terminated him for requesting an accommodation to care for a relative with a disability. It concluded that Mr. Castro-Ramirez’s evidence at best showed that his new supervisor was unwilling to provide accommodation to the same extent as his previous supervisor. It dismissed Mr. Castro-Ramirez’s case.
On appeal, the court in Castro-Ramirez began with a review of California disability discrimination law. One section defines a disability as including the employer’s perception that a person is associated with someone with a disability. Another section requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees. As a matter of first impression, the court of appeal concluded that California law creates a duty for employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees who are associated with a disabled person.
The court of appeal also found that a jury could reasonably infer from the evidence that Mr. Castro-Ramirez’s association with his disabled son was a substantial motivating factor his termination. In particular, the facts could lead to an inference that the new supervisor wanted to avoid the inconvenience and distraction Mr. Castro-Ramirez’s need to care for his disabled son posed to the supervisor as the person responsible for scheduling the drivers. Consequently, the supervisor engineered a situation in which Mr. Castro-Ramirez would refuse to work the shift, giving the supervisor the reason to terminate him.
As for the retaliation claim, the appellate court concluded that Mr. Castro-Ramirez engaged in protected conduct. A jury could reasonably find that Mr. Castro-Ramirez’s repeated complaints to his old and new supervisors about the change in his scheduling, when both knew that he required earlier hours to administer dialysis to his son, constituted opposition to the denial of a reasonable accommodation in his schedule.