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Employment Law Blog

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cal Supreme Court Lets Stand Key Disability Ruling

The California Supreme Court denied a petition for review in a case titled Arteage v. Brink’s Incorporated, letting stand an appellate court ruling that circumscribed the definition of “disability” under California law.

Defining the term “disability” under California law is a very important issue, and California employers ought to pay careful attention to the definition. Unlike the federal ADA, California’s FEHA has a very broad definition of disability. Until the Arteaga appellate opinion, now left untouched by the California Supreme Court, courts have not focused much on whether particular physical conditions do or do not qualify as disabilities.

FEHA is explicitly and unabashedly liberal—it says so right in the text of the statute. As stated in the FEHA: “The law of this state contains broad definitions of physical disability, mental disability, and medical condition. It is the intent of the Legislature that the definitions of physical disability and mental disability be construed so that applicants and employees are protected from discrimination due to an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment that is disabling, potentially disabling, or perceived as disabling or potentially disabling.” “The provisions of [the FEHA] shall be construed liberally for the accomplishment of [its] purposes . . . .”

FEHA fulfills its liberal aspirations in the definition of “disability.” Under the FEHA, “physical disability” includes having a physiological disease, disorder, or condition that, by affecting the neurological or musculoskeletal body systems, special sense organs or skin, “limits” a “major life activity.” The key word is “limits.” It is very broad, and is contrasted with the federal ADA, which requires a “substantial” limitation. “Limits” is synonymous with making the achievement of a major life activity “difficult.”

Management attorneys and HR experts have long lamented this broad definition. They are heard to complain that just about any condition can make life difficult. They say that it is too easy to allege disability discrimination.

The appellate court in this case tackled the definition head on. The court began by considering what the “baseline” for “difficult” should be. “In deciding whether [the employees’] limitations . . . make them ‘disabled’ under FEHA, the proper comparative baseline is either the individual without the impairment in question or the average unimpaired person.”

For example, one could look at an employee with a 25 percent reduction of former capacity to lift, or an employee who lost approximately 50% of her pre-injury capacity for manual tasks. Additionally, one could look to the normal or average population. For example, in considering whether a disability caused difficulty with tasks such as dressing and sleeping, one can look to whether most people can perform those tasks without difficulty.

Turning to Arteaga, the appellate court examined his claim of pain symptoms. Arteaga did not have an actual disability while employed by Brink’s because his symptoms did not make the performance of his job duties difficult as compared to his unimpaired state or to a normal or average baseline.

By denying the petition for review, the California Supreme Court has given implicit approval of the appellate court’s disability definition. It is also notable that the Court denied a motion to “depublish” the lower court’s opinion. If the opinion had been depublished, it could not be cited as a precedent in future cases. The Supreme Court’s decision to preserve the precedential authority of the lower court opinion adds weight to the assumption that the Supreme Court approves of the opinion. 

For a more complete analysis of the appellate court decision, click here.

Submitted by
Christopher W. Olmsted
Barker Olmsted & Barnier, APLC