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Disabled Worker in California Benefits From Less Restrictive State Disability Discrimination Standards

Disabled workers in California won an important victory today as the California Supreme Court announced its decision in Colmenares v. Braemar Country Club. (See LA Times story.) At stake in Colmenares was whether the 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 limits one or more major activities.

Francisco Colmenares filed the lawsuit when his employer, the Braemar Country Club, fired him after 25 years on the job. Colmenares had injured his back on the job in 1981, and the country club accommodated his injury by assigning him light duties and later promoting him to a foreman position that he could handle despite his back problems. Colmenares earned positive job evaluations as foreman until 1995, when a 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, Colmenares was fired 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.

This ruling is also important because it provides protection to workers who claimed disability discrimination prior to 2001, when a new law went into effect, making clear that California disability discrimination laws were to be interpreted more broadly than the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Colmenares’ employer, like many other employers in pending lawsuits, argued that prior to 2001, that California law should be interpreted the same way as federal law, which would have made it very difficult for Colmenares and many other disabled plaintiffs to proceed with their disability discrimination lawsuits. However, the California Supreme Court made clear in its ruling today that even prior to 2001, California antidiscrimination law should be interpreted more broadly than federal law, which helps not only Colmenares, but anyone affected by the 2001 change in the law. The federal “substantially limit” standard has been used to defeat innumerable disability claims, putting many disabled workers in the double bind of being either “too disabled” to qualify for the law’s protection (not qualified to perform the essential functions or duties of a job), or “not disabled enough” under the “substantially limit” standard. (For more information about disability discrimination law, see the Workplace Fairness web site page on disability discrimination.)

While this decision does not directly affect workers in other states covered by either federal or state disability discrimination laws, it does demonstrate the importance of efforts to pass state laws which are expressly written to overcome some of the limitations of the federal ADA. And whether or not Mr. Colmenares ultimately wins his case (the country club claims that he is not disabled at all, even under the new standard), thousands of disabled workers in California are likely to benefit from the less restrictive California standards interpreted by the California Supreme Court today.

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