California Employment Law Blog

Disabled by Association: Navigating Associational Disability in California Employment Law

Posted by Timothy B. Del Castillo | Jul 05, 2023 | 0 Comments

someone pushing wheelchair

Until recently, employees have only been able to bring claims for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate for themselves, not on behalf of others. However, California courts have begun to recognize a new type of disability discrimination called "associational" disability. Recent Court of Appeals cases, such as Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, Inc. and Vega v. YapStone, Inc., provide valuable insights into the complexities of associational disability and its implications for employers and employees.

In Castro-Ramirez, an employee sued Dependable Highway Express, Inc., alleging associational disability discrimination and failure to accommodate his associational disability. The plaintiff's son required daily dialysis, which the plaintiff provided. Initially, the supervisors accommodated the plaintiff's schedule, but a new supervisor implemented conflicting changes. When the plaintiff refused to work the conflicting shift, he was terminated. Although the court did not address accommodations because the plaintiff dropped the claim, the court still allowed the plaintiff to pursue a general claim for associational disability discrimination.

This court emphasized that the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits disability discrimination and extends protection to individuals associated with disabled persons. FEHA's definition of a "physical disability" includes association with someone who has or is perceived to have a physical disability. As a result, discrimination based on an individual's association with a disabled person is prohibited in California under FEHA.

However, Castro-Ramirez did not specifically address the claim for failure to accommodate a disability. It was not until the case of Vega v. YapStone, Inc. that more clarity was provided regarding associational disability accommodations, specifically around the significance of the interactive process. In Vega, YapStone, Inc. initially granted leave to an employee who needed to care for her disabled sister. The plaintiff's leave was extended twice, but when she indicated an indefinite absence, YapStone Inc. imposed a return deadline for business reasons. When the plaintiff refused to return to work, she was terminated.

The court concluded that YapStone, Inc. did not act in bad faith and deemed the plaintiff's request for indefinite leave, if considered a request for accommodation, to be unreasonable. The ruling established that employees must demonstrate their ability to fulfill job responsibilities, with or without reasonable accommodation, in order to establish a claim for failing to accommodate associational disability. Here, the plaintiff failed to present evidence refuting YapStone's legitimate business needs or demonstrating that a longer leave would not cause the company undue hardship.

Vega underscores the importance for employers to engage in the interactive process and find reasonable accommodations that consider both employee needs and operational requirements. Employers should approach the interactive process in good faith and explore all possible accommodations before making decisions that impact employees with associational disabilities. It is crucial for employees to be aware that a failure by their employer to engage in the interactive process may provide grounds for a successful claim of associational disability discrimination.

It is worth noting that the California Supreme Court has not yet issued a ruling specifically addressing associational disability under FEHA. The Court may provide further clarification and guidance regarding the obligations of employers and the rights of employees in cases of associational disability discrimination.

Despite the uncertainties surrounding associational discrimination, it is essential for both employers and employees to understand the prohibition against discrimination based on association with a physically disabled person. Employers should strive to create inclusive work environments that accommodate employees' reasonable needs while considering their own operational requirements. Employees should familiarize themselves with their rights, seek legal advice when encountering potential associational disability discrimination, and stay informed about legal developments.

About the Author

Timothy B. Del Castillo

Tim Del Castillo is Founding Partner of Castle Law: California Employment Counsel, PC.


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