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California Court Emphasizes That State Law Disability Law Requirements Exceed Those Under Federal Law

February 24, 2003

A recent California Supreme Court decision emphasizes that state law protections for disabled employees go beyond those provided by the federal Americans With Disabilities Act ("ADA"). In Colmenares v. Braemar Country Club, Inc. (filed February 20, 2003), the employer terminated a golf course employee with chronic back problems. The employee sued for disability discrimination under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"). The employer prevailed on a summary judgment motion by showing that Colmenares did not have a legally recognized disability since his condition did not "substantially" limit a major life activity.

On appeal, Colmenares argued that the FEHA did not require a "substantial" limitation - that any limitation, substantial or not, was sufficient. The California Supreme Court agreed with Colmenares, overruling several prior decisions that reached the opposite conclusion. The Supreme Court then returned the case to the Court of Appeal to determine if Colmenares fell within the broader state law definition of a disability. That decision is pending.

One of the most difficult issues managers and human resources specialists confront is deciding whether an employee is disabled and whether an accommodation is warranted. This recent decision demonstrates that complying with federal law under the ADA is not always sufficient. Particularly in California, there are separate state law requirements that go beyond those imposed by federal law. Employers making decisions involving disabled employees in California need to be mindful of these separate state law requirements or risk significant liability.