Ruling Is a Boon for State's Disabled Workers
The Supreme Court reaffirms a standard that is less restrictive than federal law.
By Maura Dolan
Times Staff Writer
February 21, 2003
SAN FRANCISCO -- The California Supreme Court on Thursday made it easier for disabled workers to sue their employers for discrimination in a decision that will affect hundreds of pending lawsuits in California.
The state high court unanimously ruled that a California law barring discrimination in jobs and housing protects people with conditions that limit their participation in a major activity. By contrast, federal law protects the disabled from discrimination on the job only if the condition "substantially" restricts one or more major activities.
The court, in its ruling, said the state's broader definition of disability applied even before the Legislature changed state law in 2001 to make it more protective of workers. As a result, "thousands and thousands" more people are eligible for disability protection in California courts than in federal courts, said William Quackenbush, an employment lawyer in Northern California.
"It is a very valuable advantage for California employees," he said.
For example, carpal tunnel syndrome, a nerve injury often caused by repetitive motions of the hand, is a disability under state law but probably not under federal law, Quackenbush said.
"This important decision affirms that all Californians have always and will continue to receive full protection and access to legal recourse if they are refused jobs, fired or harassed in the workplace based on a physical disability," said Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, whose office sided with the employee in the case.
Francisco Colmenares, a San Fernando Valley laborer, filed the lawsuit when his employer, the Braemar Country Club in Tarzana, fired him after 25 years on the job. Colmenares had injured his back while working in 1981, and the country club accommodated his injury by assigning him light duties. In 1982, the club promoted him to foreman in charge of golf course maintenance, a job he could handle with his back problems.
Colmenares, who is now in his mid-50s, continued to earn positive job evaluations as foreman until he got a new supervisor in 1995. The new supervisor gave him poor reviews and eventually reassigned him from golf course maintenance to supervising construction of a clubhouse, a job that required heavy labor.
In 1997, the club fired him for "deficiencies in his work performance." Colmenares sued, charging he was fired because of his bad back. The country club countered that he had no disability under state law because his back injury did not "substantially" limit a major life activity. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald E. Cappai ruled for the club, and Colmenares appealed.
Two months later, in a different case, another division of the Court of Appeal in Los Angeles reached the opposite conclusion. That court said California law required a showing only of some limitation, not a substantial one.
In an opinion written by Justice Joyce L. Kennard, the state high court said Thursday that a worker claiming discrimination may sue if the disability is a physiological disease or condition that affects the body and limits the worker's ability to participate in major life activities. Mental illness is also a disability protected under the law.
Confusion about the definition of a disability in California stemmed from rulings by federal courts and a 1993 California Supreme Court decision that said disabilities must "substantially" limit major activities. Kennard said the wording in that court ruling was "misleading," and the language a mere observation, not a binding rule.
In 2000, the state Legislature changed the wording of the law to make clear that only a showing of a limitation is needed to win protection.
But hundreds of cases have been on hold pending Colmenares' case because they involved incidents that occurred before 2001, when the changes in the law took effect.
Joseph Lovretovich, a lawyer for Colmenares, said his client was out of work for a year until he got a new job doing golf course maintenance.
"It was very hard on him because he was the provider of his family," Lovretovich said. "He is a very proud man."
Linda D. Kilb, a lawyer for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, which represented Colmenares before the state Supreme Court, said Thursday's ruling in Colmenares vs. Braemar "emphasizes that California has an independent and broad civil rights law."
"That is critically important because the federal courts are now in the process of narrowly construing federal civil rights laws on a range of issues," Kilb said.
George Howard Jr., who represented a large group of California employers in the case, said the decision contradicts six previous rulings from appellate courts in the state.
"Employers made decisions based on those six cases ... and now may be held possibly liable," Howard said. "The impact this is going to have is very unfair to employers."
He said the California definition of disability means a "tremendous number of people are protected" in the state. He said he knew of no other state that offers employees such broad protection.
Alan Levins, who represents the country club, contended Thursday that Colmenares does not have a physical limitation, and that the club will eventually prevail.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times