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Employees with Disabled Family Members Are Protected from “Associational” Discrimination

For some 15 years, Luis Castro-Ramirez was the only family member qualified to administer daily dialysis treatments to his ailing son. When Dependable Highway Express, Inc. (DHE) hired Castro-Ramirez in December 2009, his supervisors accommodated his request for morning shifts so that he would arrive home afternoons in time to tend to his son’s needs.

In March 2013, Castro-Ramirez’s new supervisor purportedly ceased accommodating his morning schedule requests. Despite Castro-Ramirez’s complaints to management, DHE terminated his employment for refusing to work the new afternoon work shifts.

Castro-Ramirez promptly filed a lawsuit against DHE. In addition to retaliation and wrongful termination claims, he alleged DHE was liable under an unsettled legal theory: “associational disability discrimination,” including an employer’s duty to accommodate non-disabled employees “associated” with a disabled family member.

It is well established that employees who are themselves disabled are protected from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). See, California’s Anti-Discrimination Legislation. Likewise, employers have a duty to explore and provide reasonable accommodation to disabled employees. See, Employers Duties To Reasonably Accommodate Worker Disabilities (May, 2015). It’s less clear whether employers must accommodate based on theories of associational disability.

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s ruling, holding employers have a duty under FEHA to prevent associational disability discrimination and provide reasonable accommodation to an applicant or employee who is associated with a disabled person. Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, Inc. (2016) 2 California Appellate Reporter, fifth series (Cal.App.5th) 1028.

California employers should thus proceed deliberately and with caution when faced with an employee’s scheduling or other requests to care for disabled family members.

For more information, please contact one of our attorneys Tim Bowles, Cindy Bamforth or Helena Kobrin.

Cindy Bamforth

November 11, 2016