Associational Discrimination

In California, employees are protected against discrimination based on their own protected conditions which include, but are not limited to sex, race, age, pregnancy, religion or their physical or mental conditions.

A more complex and difficult issue presents itself when dealing with associational discrimination, where an employee is “associated” with a protected individual, but does not have the covered condition himself. An example of such discrimination is where an employer discriminates against an individual because the individual’s significant other carries HIV, and the employer fires the employee because the manager believes that the employee might also have HIV or be at risk for contracting the disease.

To discriminate is to preclude a qualified individual from the benefits of employment or to treat a qualified individual differently because of the known disability of another whom the qualified individual is known to have an association or relationship with. While this protection is not limited to “traditional” family relationships, “casual” relationships are not protected. For instance, while family, business, and other social relationships are protected, a court may determine that the link to a friendly acquaintance may be too attenuated to be considered covered.

In 2016, for the first time ever, the California Court of Appeals held that healthy employees without any disability — but who are “associated” with a disabled person who needs their assistance — are protected under California’s disability discrimination law. Thus, California employers are now obligated to engage in the “interactive process” with these healthy employees and to grant them reasonable accommodation to allow them to assist disabled third parties.

Luis Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express is a landmark CA case which concerns an employee who notified his employer on the very first day of work that he had “daily obligations at home” relating to administering dialysis to his disabled son. The employee’s first supervisors were supportive and gave the employee shift times that allowed him to perform his daily duties for his son. However, three years later, after many positive performance reviews, a new supervisor was put in charge. This new supervisor assigned work shifts to the employee that prevented him from attending to his son. When the employee asked to have his old schedule back, and again explained his daily required duties for his disabled son, the supervisor refused. The employee was then fired when he refused to accept the shift times assigned by his new supervisor.

Of significance in the case is that the Court admitted that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make reasonable accommodation ONLY to employees or applicants who were themselves disabled. However, California is different because under California’s disability discrimination law, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the term “disability” is explicitly defined to include associating with someone who has a disability. The Court concluded that FEHA requires that an employer must not only reasonably accommodate the known disability of an applicant or employee, but the employer must also accommodate the employee’s association with a physically disabled person.

This means that a healthy California employee is protected by California’s disability discrimination law to the extent that the healthy employee provides assistance to or otherwise “associates with” a known disabled person. This Court ruling significantly expands employee protections in California.

We dedicate our practice exclusively to assisting employees who have suffered or are suffering discrimination in the workplace. Employers are equipped with attorneys who represent their interests, often at the expense of their employees. If you feel you are being discriminated against in the workplace, contact Hicks and Hicks. We will listen to you and help provide legal solutions to your problems at work. We are here to help you.