HR Management & Compliance

California Disability Case Charts New Territory for Employers

A California Court of Appeal has found that an employer may be liable under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) for failing to accommodate an able-bodied employee’s request to modify his work schedule to care for a disabled family member. The court’s interpretation of the FEHA creates significant new obligations for California employers.

In 2010, Dependable Highway Express, Inc. (DHE), hired Luis Castro-Ramirez to work as a driver. At the time he was hired, he informed DHE that his disabled son requires daily dialysis and he needed his shifts to end early so he could administer the treatment.

The amount of time his son needs to be connected to the machine varies from 10 to 12 hours, depending on his condition on any given day. Castro-Ramirez’s supervisor, Winston Bermudez, accommodated his request. While the schedules of DHE’s drivers vary from day to day, Castro-Ramirez typically worked from 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. until 7:00 or 8:00 p.m.

In March 2013, DHE promoted Bermudez to operations manager, and Boldomero Munoz-Guillen became Castro-Ramirez’s supervisor. Bermudez informed Munoz-Guillen that Castro-Ramirez had to leave early because of special needs related to his disabled son and asked Munoz-Guillen to “work with” him.

Later that month, Castro-Ramirez complained to Bermudez that Munoz-Guillen had changed his hours and he was unable to leave work in time to tend to his son. When Bermudez informed Munoz-Guillen about the complaint, he agreed to “work on that.”

On April 15, a DHE customer sent an e-mail to Bermudez asking for Castro-Ramirez, the “regular drive[r],” to make its deliveries at 7:00 a.m. However, Munoz-Guillen falsely told Castro-Ramirez that the customer didn’t want him to make deliveries and that was why he had given him later shifts.

On April 22, Munoz-Guillen assigned Castro-Ramirez a shift that started at 11:55 a.m., the latest he had ever started a shift. He agreed to work the shift that day but told Munoz-Guillen: “Please, I need to have my job like always. I’ve always had help from everyone except you.”

The following day, Munoz-Guillen assigned Castro-Ramirez a shift beginning at noon even though he had given eight other drivers earlier shifts. Castro-Ramirez objected that the starting time was too late because he couldn’t get back in time to administer dialysis to his son by 8:00 p.m. He requested another route or to take that day off. He reminded Munoz-Guillen that Bermudez had already talked to him about his need for early shifts to care for his son.

Munoz-Guillen threatened to fire Castro-Ramirez if he refused to do the assigned route. Castro-Ramirez said he was sorry, but he couldn’t do it. Munoz-Guillen told him to come back the next day to sign the termination paperwork.

Castro-Ramirez returned to DHE for 3 consecutive days seeking work. On the third day, another manager noted that he hadn’t worked for 3 days and told him “of course” he was terminated. DHE processed the termination as a resignation, with the stated reason being “refused assignment.”

Castro-Ramirez sued DHE on several grounds, including disability discrimination, failure to provide reasonable accommodation, failure to prevent discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

DHE asked the court to dismiss the case without a trial. The trial court did so and entered judgment in favor of DHE. Castro-Ramirez appealed the judgment but abandoned his claim for failure to provide reasonable accommodation.

Read on for more details on the case, its outcome, and implications for California employers.