Three months ago, we reported that the California Court of Appeal stretched precedent to expand the FEHA’s protections for persons merely associated with someone with a disability (the first case of its kind to do so). Specifically, the Court found that an employee who had informed his employer of his need to administer dialysis to his sick son, and whose request to work the early shift had been accommodated for years, could maintain a claim for failure to reasonably accommodate a disability when this accommodation was taken away (apparently for no good business reason). The reasoning was that FEHA’s reasonable accommodation provision extended to persons with disabilities who were associated with employees or applicants and this association was itself the employee or applicant’s “disability.” But the Plaintiff in this case had previously abandoned his claim for failure to reasonably accommodate. So the defendant asked the court of appeal for a rehearing of the issue in light of that critical fact. The court of appeal agreed to rehear the case.
On August 29, 2016, the Court of Appeal issued an opinion on rehearing. This time, the court punted; it did not decide the issue of reasonable accommodation, finding instead that the Plaintiff abandoned his failure to accommodate cause of action. But it reiterated its previous reasoning that the FEHA would reasonably be interpreted to require accommodation based on the employee’s association with a physically disabled person, including a lengthy discussion on how the Government Code definition of physical disability encompasses associational disability. Further, the Court distinguished the language of the FEHA from the ADA and federal cases holding that an employer was not required to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees who are relatives/associates of disabled persons.
This opinion still held that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to the Defendant on the Plaintiff’s claims for associational disability discrimination, failure to prevent discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy, which were heavily predicated on the failure to accommodate.
While the Court vacated its previous decision, eliminating the precedent it had created regarding the duty to reasonably accommodate the disabilities of associated persons; our guidance on this issue remains: employers need to exercise extreme caution in handling employee requests that pertain to medical issues of their own or of family members/associates. Training supervisors to report these sorts of requests to HR/legal counsel for consideration, and act consistently and in good faith, can go a long way in avoiding associational disability claims (including failure to reasonably accommodate).