By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.
Central to the claims included in the employee’s complaint were allegations the employer reneged on a promise to allow her to work from home, even after she gave birth to a child with disabilities, and ultimately pushed her out of the door entirely.
Denying motions to dismiss filed by an employer and multiple individual defendants, a federal district court in California, faced with a plethora of claims under the ADA, FEHA, FMLA, Title VII, and various state laws asserted by an employee who had given birth to a child with a rare genetic mutation, found she pleaded facts sufficient to establish each of the contested claims. The court rejected the employer’s contention that associational discrimination claims weren’t covered by the state law and also explained that several of the arguments raised by the defendants were better suited for consideration at summary judgment (Castro v. Classy, Inc., March 2, 2020, Huff, M.).
Remote work possibility squashed. In the summer of 2018, the employee, who worked in sales development, learned she was pregnant. Later that year, she discussed remote working options with her manager, as well as a modified pay structure for her maternity leave. However, when her manager left the company, the employee was told that remote work would no longer be a possibility. The company president informed her he “no longer felt comfortable with [Plaintiff] working from home.” Her maternity leave pay situation remained up in the air, even after she began leave.
Child born with disabilities. Her child, born a few weeks after she began maternity leave, was born with a rare and disabling genetic mutation. The employee informed her employer about her son’s condition shortly after his birth. Four months later, she met with HR to discuss her desire to work from home and was told that “the budget doesn’t allow remote work from home” and that there were “no positions open that allow work from home.” She was also told that she should find another job.
Unacceptable options. Less than two weeks later, the employer offered her three options: return to her full-time in-office role; take a severance package; or take a part-time remote work position. Finding none of those options acceptable, the employee did not resume her employment. She later filed suit against the employer, the company president, the HR manager, and her sales manager. The defendants filed motions to dismiss most of the claims.
Associational disability claims. Clarifying that she was not pursuing an ADA claim of failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, the employee specified that her ADA claim was only for associational discrimination. In that regard, the court concluded that she had sufficiently stated a claim. She alleged a causal connection between the employer’s discrimination and her association with her son with disabilities. She alleged that she informed the employer of his disability in writing and included a doctor’s recommendation that she should work from home. She further alleged that the employer was aware of his disabilities and needs when it denied her request to work remotely and that it effectively terminated her employment because of that association. Those allegations were sufficient to establish the employee’s ADA claim.
Moreover, she sufficiently alleged a FEHA claim against the employer. The employer unsuccessfully argued that the FEHA does not cover associational discrimination and that only an employee or applicant with a disability could bring a claim under the statute. However, that argument conflicted with the plain text of FEHA, which defines a physical disability to include a person who is associated with someone who has, or is perceived to have, a physical disability. And while the state’s highest court has not considered whether associational disability discrimination claims may proceed under the FEHA, the state appeals courts have recognized such claims. Thus, the employee sufficiently alleged associational disability discrimination under the FEHA. She also sufficiently alleged claims under the state law based on the employer’s failure to engage in an interactive process and its failure to accommodate her.
Retaliation. In her complaint, the employee also alleged that the employer retaliated against her for requesting a reasonable accommodation. The employer argued that the employee was offered the same job upon the expiration of her leave, which it claimed “refutes any inference of retaliation.” However, the employee contended that the employer knew about her son’s disability yet continued to deny her requests to work remotely, even though it allowed other employees in similar roles to do so. Accepting the employee’s allegations as true, the court explained that she sufficiently pleaded a retaliation claim under both the ADA and FEHA.
Her request for a reasonable accommodation was a protected activity and she sufficiently alleged that activity was related to her employer’s actions by claiming the employer declined her requests, even though it was aware of her son’s condition and had allowed other employees to work from home. However, the court noted that the employer is “free to bring a motion for summary judgment after the record is more fully developed.”
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