An employer in California may be liable under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) for failing to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee who needed to modify his work schedule in order to care for a disabled family member. While the employee isn't disabled himself, he also sued his employer for disability discrimination. And a California Court of Appeal's interpretation of the FEHA could be a wake-up call for other California employers.
Reasonable Accommodation Was Given to Driver, Then Taken Away
Luis Castro-Ramirez was hired to work as a driver by Dependable Highway Express, Inc. (DHE) in 2010. When he was hired, Castro-Ramirez let DHE know that his son, who is disabled, requires daily dialysis. Because of his son's condition, he informed DHE that he needed his shifts to end early so that he could administer his son's treatment, and that he needed to be on the machine anywhere between 10 to 12 hours. Winston Bermudez, Castro-Ramirez's supervisor, accommodated the request. Though DHE's driver schedules also varied on a daily basis, Castro-Ramirez worked the hours of 9:00 or 10:00am through 7:00 or 8:00pm for three years.
But in March 2013, Bermudez received a promotion, and Boldomero Munoz-Guillen became Castro-Ramirez's new supervisor. Despite Bermudez informing Munoz-Guillen of the employee's accommodation to care for his son, the new supervisor changed Castro-Ramirez' driving schedule. This, in turn, made it impossible for the employee to administer his son's treatment. Castro-Ramirez informed his old supervisor of the incident and the new supervisor said he would "work on that."
Supervisor Showed Signs of Retaliation
The following month, on April 15, a DHE customer emailed Bermudez asking for the "regular driver," (Castro-Ramirez) to make deliveries at 7:00am. But Castro-Ramirez was told by Munoz-Guillen that this customer did not want him to make deliveries and that was why his shifts were later. Then, on April 22, Munoz-Guillen assigned Castro-Ramirez a shift that started later than any other shifts he had worked - one that began at 11:55am. Though the driver agreed to take on the shift that day, he told his supervisor, "Please, I need to have my job like always. I've always had help from everyone except you."
Then, things got worse for Castro-Ramirez. The following day, Munoz-Guillen assigned him a shift that began at noon - despite giving eight other drivers shifts that began earlier in the day. Castro-Ramirez objected to the shift stating that it was too late and he wouldn't be back in time to care for his son at 8:00pm. He then asked for another shift or to take off work. Castro-Ramirez then received a threat that his supervisor would fire him if he didn't take the route that he was assigned. Castro-Ramirez apologized but said he would be unable to do so. Munoz-Guillen then ordered the driver to come back the following day to sign termination paperwork.
And Castro-Ramirez did come back. He claims that he sought work at DHE for three consecutive days. Another manager noted on the third day that Castro-Ramirez hadn't worked for days so he was terminated "of course." DHE even processed Castro-Ramirez' termination as a resignation where he also refused an assignment.
DHE Sued for Retaliation, Wrongful Termination and More
In addition to suing DHE for its alleged violation of California reasonable accommodation laws and disability discrimination, Castro-Ramirez also sued his employer for failure to prevent discrimination, workplace retaliation, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy.
The trial court dismissed the case without a trial and entered judgment in favor of DHE, but Castro-Ramirez appealed the judgment.
The FEHA Prohibits the Type of Discrimination Castro-Ramirez Faced
In California, discrimination based on a worker's association with an individual who has a disability is illegal under the FEHA. In fact, the FEHA defines "disability" to include a perception "that the [employee] is associated with a person who has, or is perceived to have" a disability.
Castro-Ramirez' employer argued that it didn't have an obligation to provide the worker with a schedule accommodation due to his son's dialysis under FEHA. Thus, Castro-Ramirez agreed to abandon his reasonable accommodation claim.
The appellate court stated that although "no published California case has determined whether employers have a duty under [the] FEHA to provide reasonable accommodations to an applicant or employee who is associated with a disabled person," the FEHA does offer this responsibility in its language. The court also found Castro-Ramirez' reasonable accommodation claim to be relevant due to the fact that the employee was qualified to perform his job with or without reasonable accommodation.
The court also concluded that a jury could infer that Castro-Ramirez' association with his son was the main motivating factor in his supervisor's decision to fire him. The court also stated that the supervisor's reason for termination was just an excuse to discriminate against the employee and terminate him.
If Castro-Ramirez can prove during trial that he can perform his job functions with reasonable accommodations relating to his son's disability, and that his son's disability motivated his employer to terminate him, DHE could be held liable for disability discrimination based on association.
The FEHA also prohibits employers from terminating employees who are engaged in protected activity. And the appellate court found that Castro-Ramirez' complaints to both Munoz-Guillena and Bermudez regarding the schedule changes constituted protected activity under California law.
Article adapted from Disabilities: California court 'goes where no one has gone before' via HR.BLR.com
If you feel your employer is violating the FEHA by denying your requests for accommodation due to a disability, or for disability discrimination based on association, the California employment lawyers at Hennig Ruiz are here to help. Contact us for a free consultation today.