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Your Employer Should Accommodate Your Spouse or Child’s Disability If Needed

Most employees are aware of their right to accommodation at their workplace based on their disability. What they are not always made aware of is that employers also have a duty to engage in what is called good faith interactive process and accommodate their employees based on a spouse or child’s disability if needed.

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a person with a physical disability. Further, under the FEHA, “physical disability” includes “includes a perception that the person has any of those characteristics or that the person is associated with a person who has, or is perceived to have, any of those characteristics.” Cal Gov Code § 12926 (o). In other words, under FEHA, a person who is associated with a person who has a physical disability is a “person with a disability.” When an employer takes negative employment action because of the employee’s association with a disabled individual, the employer has violated the FEHA, even if the employee has no disability of his or her own.

The above definitions also require an employer to accommodate an employee who requires accommodation to perform the essential job functions due to the employee’s association with a disabled person. Although there is no California appellate court case squarely on point, at least one court in the Second Appellate District, which includes Los Angeles county, has opined that the FEHA’s reasonable accommodation requirement should apply to associational disability. Castro-Ramirez v. Dependable Highway Express, Inc., 2 Cal. App. 5th 1028, 1038-1039, 207 Cal. Rptr. 3d 120, 129 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. August 29, 2016). Additionally, a federal district court in California has found that an employer is obligated under the FEHA to engage in the interactive process and provide reasonable accommodation to an employee based on a family member’s disability. Castro v. Classy, Inc., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 35556, *13-14, 2020 WL 996948 (S.D. Cal. March 2, 2020).

Our office is currently handling a case where the client’s former employer failed to accommodate his son’s disability and wrongfully terminated his employment. Our client was a loyal employee for almost 20 years, receiving numerous promotions and always good performance reviews. His son has a disability that puts him at high risk for COVID. Our client requested reasonable accommodation to continue to work from home so as not to put his son’s health in danger, until vaccinations were made available to the public. His request was denied, even though he had successfully worked from home with no issues for several months when the pandemic first started. His employer failed to engage in a good faith interactive process and continued to deny his requests to work from home, to have an extension of his leave of absence or to receive any other accommodation. After rejecting his requests for reasonable accommodation, the employer wrongfully terminated his employment in January 2021, as vaccinations were just on the horizon, losing a loyal and hard-working employee.

The takeaway here is that California employers should engage in the interactive process when employees request accommodation needed due to their association with a disabled person, such as a family member. Whether and what accommodation must be provided will depend upon the facts of the case. Employees should be aware of their rights and timely assert their need for reasonable accommodation.