As disability discrimination and accommodation claims continue to rise across the country, an appellate court in California may have just helped significantly expand such claims in the future by finding that an employee can maintain a suit for "associational" disability discrimination based on the disability of his son.
The key facts are as follows: The employer knew the employee's son required a daily dialysis treatment that only the employee could administer. For several years, the employer scheduled the employee so that he could be home at night in time for the dialysis. However, that schedule accommodation changed when a new supervisor took over. The employee was ultimately terminated for refusing to work a shift that would have prevented him from performing his son's dialysis on time. The appellate court held that the employee could pursue his claims for disability discrimination, failure to prevent discrimination, and retaliation in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), as well as wrongful termination in violation of public policy.
In reaching this conclusion, the court confirmed that under both the California FEHA and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an employee may bring a claim for associational disability discrimination if an adverse employment action was substantially motivated because of an employee's association with someone who has a disability. The court further expanded the law by holding that the California FEHA also creates a duty to provide reasonable accommodations to an employee who is associated with a disabled person (even though no such duty exists under the federal ADA).
Applying this law to the case at hand, the court found that it can be reasonably inferred that the employer (through its new supervisor) acted proactively to terminate the employee in order to avoid the inconvenience and distraction related to employee's need to care for his disabled son. The court also stated that the employer stated reason for the termination – employee's refusal to work the assigned shift – was a pretext because employer's policies allowed for less severe discipline under such circumstances and because a customer had specifically asked the employee to work an earlier shift (such that there was no legitimate reason for assigning employee to a later shift).
This case presents yet another example of the many nuances that exist with disability discrimination cases. Furthermore, although this decision was technically based upon California law, the conclusions were reached by mostly interpreting federal law. Therefore, many of the concepts raised in this case could apply across the country. As always, it is a good idea to seek legal assistance whenever uncertainty exists related to any disability or accommodation issues.
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