Physical or mental disabilities are a part of life for many California employees. However they are not an excuse for employers to engage in discriminatory acts that make it difficult or impossible to work.
Disability discrimination is unlawful and, unfortunately, an issue that many employers do not properly understand.
If you are disabled, you have many rights under state law. It is important to discuss your situation with a Los Angeles disability discrimination attorney if you have questions or concerns about treatment by an employer. Some information on how these cases work may also help you understand your rights.
California Law on Disability Discrimination
The state statute that protects job applicants and employees from discrimination based upon disability is the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The FEHA prohibits California employers from engaging in discriminatory acts on account of a person’s disabilities, including:
- Physical conditions;
- Mental disabilities;
- Certain other medical conditions, even if not technically “disabilities;” or,
- Some types of medical information.
You may have heard of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”). The FEHA applies to more employers than the ADA. The FEHA covers employers with 5 or more employees, while only employers with at least 15 employees are covered by the ADA. Additionally, the FEHA’s definition of what constitutes a qualifying “disability” is more liberal and covers many more health and medical conditions than the ADA.
Employees Entitled to Protection
The FEHA covers all categories of job applicants and current employees. This includes full and part-time employees, temporary employees, at-will employees, those who work under oral, implied or written employment contracts, apprentices, and paid work appointments.
In some cases, a disabling condition is quite obvious. For example, someone who is wheelchair bound, missing a limb, or blind. In other situations, that disability may not be outwardly visible at all. For example, a cardiac condition, weakened back, or asymptomatic disease. The FEHA protects employees in both kinds of situations. The following is general guidance on what constitutes a disability.
- Physical Disability: The most common type of disability relates to physical factors. This is any medical impairment that affects the human body’s major systems and limits a primary life activity. Under this description, there are three factors involved with a physical disability.
- Impairment, such as a loss of a key component of human anatomy, a cosmetic disfigurement, or a medical disorder or condition.
- The condition impacts one of the body’s essential systems. This includes respiratory, cardiovascular, muscles and bones, speech, skin, reproductive organs, and others.
- The condition must restrict a person’s major life activity, a concept where FEHA is quite broad. Walking, working, eating, talking, social activities, light lifting, and similar activities are examples.
- Mental Disability: Psychological conditions may also constitute a disability when they limit a major life activity. This includes depression, schizophrenia, learning disabilities, bipolar disorder, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and others.
- Medical Conditions: Any health issue related to a disease, genetic trait, or cancer-related impairment is protected by the FEHA as a protected “medical condition.”
The FEHA protects employees with these kinds of medical issues, even where there are no overt or visible manifestations of the employee’s condition at present.
In addition to protecting employees who suffer actual disabilities, the FEHA offers special protections to employees who have a history or record of previous disabilities. This applies even if they are not currently disabled. This also applies to employees who are not themselves disabled, but who their employers falsely perceive them as being disabled.
Conduct That May Constitute Disability Discrimination
Some forms of disability discrimination are more obvious than others, but there are common factors that you may recognize. An employer cannot, on the grounds of a person’s disability:
- Refuse to hire a job applicant;
- Decline to choose a person for promotion, training or other special work-related program, either in the context of a new hiring or with a current employee;
- Terminate a worker;
- Pay an employee less than other workers who perform the same job tasks;
- Restrict other terms, benefits, or conditions of employment.
Some personnel actions taken against disabled employees, however, even some taken because of the employee’s disability, do not constitute unlawful discrimination. For instance:
- If a medical condition prevents a person from driving, it is not unlawful discrimination for a trucking company to decline to hire him or her as a driver.
- If a disabled worker is denied a promotion because he or she was not the most qualified candidate.
- If a disabled employee is offered a reasonable accommodation which would enable them to perform the essential functions of their job, but the employee refuses because he or she prefers some other accommodation instead.
The Duty to Accommodate
In addition to prohibiting acts of discrimination, FEHA also requires employers to affirmatively offer reasonable accommodations to disabled employees if doing so will enable them to perform the essential, job-related tasks of their position.
The reasonableness of the accommodations can be tricky, and each case must be handled on an individual basis. Employers and employees are required to cooperate with each other in an interactive process, to share information and explore reasonable alternatives to see if reasonable arrangements can be made to allow the employee to work.
Whether there has been a failure to reasonably accommodate will vary depending upon the individual, the specifics of their health-related limitations, the job at issue, and which job-related tasks are considered essential. And while employers must consider all reasonable options that could potentially accommodate the employee, their duty to accommodate is not unlimited.
If a potential accommodation presents an undue hardship to the employer, the employer may not be required to undertake it, with hardship being measured by such factors as:
- The costs involved with making appropriate accommodations;
- The size and financial resources of the employer;
- The nature and potential disruption caused by the accommodation; and,
- Size of the employer’s business.
Filing a Claim for Disability Discrimination
Employees who want to pursue claims against their employers for disability discrimination in violation of the FEHA must first exhaust their administrative remedies. This means filing proper paperwork with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). There are strict time limitations for doing so. You have one year from the date of the alleged discriminatory action to file a claim.
Contact a Skilled California Employment Law Attorney About Disability Discrimination
If you have grounds to believe you are the victim of disability discrimination, it is critical to work with a lawyer who has experience with these types of cases. There are complex challenges in proving these kinds of cases and whether your employer complied with or violated the law.
At the Workplace Rights Law Group in Los Angeles, CA, our employment law attorneys can assist you with all aspects of a disability discrimination claim. Please contact us today by calling (818) 844-5200 to schedule a free consultation where we can review your case and assess your options.