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Surprise, surprise. California has a more liberal definition of disability than the rest of the country. In late February the California Supreme Court ruled that, for employment and housing purposes, a disability is a condition that “limits” a major life activity, rather than the federal law’s more stringent standard that it “substantially limits” such activity. “The ruling is a caution to the lower courts and employers that they cannot assume that only federal law applies in California,” says Linda Kilb, the attorney at Berkeley’s Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund Inc. who argued the case for the prevailing side. “Hopefully, it’s a message that employers will take to heart across the state.” Kilb points out that the ruling is the high court’s first in a decade to address the definition of disability under the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. The case began with Francisco Colmenares’s 1999 disability discrimination suit against his employer, Tarzana’s Braemar Country Club Inc., following his 1997 termination after 25 years on the job. Colmenares, a general laborer, had been given light duties at the club since injuring his back at work in 1981. But in 1997 a new supervisor reassigned him to a job with heavy duties, then fired him two months later for “deficiencies in his work performance.” Colmenares argued that the firing violated FEHA’s prohibitions against disability discrimination. The country club opposed, saying the FEHA followed federal law, which required that a disability be one that “substantially limits” a major life activity, such as work. Los Angeles superior court judge Ronald Cappai granted Braemar summary judgment in 2000, and the state appeal court affirmed. The high court, in reversing, noted that the state legislature amended FEHA in 1992 to mirror the Americans with Disabilities Act, with the exception of not adopting the federal law’s “substantial limits” test. Then, in 2001, the state enacted the Prudence Kay Poppink Act, which defined a disability as a physiological condition that merely “limits” a major life activity. “Of particular relevance here,” Justice Joyce Kennard wrote for a unanimous court, “is that the FEHA . . . used the term ‘limits,’ not the federal law’s ‘substantially limits’ language, before and after its amendment by the Poppink Act.” The court’s ruling sent Colmenares’s wrongful termination case back to the appeal court for further proceedings. It also, in a footnote, specifically disapproved rulings in five other FEHA cases decided using the federal standard. Kilb says the decision provides clear direction to the lower courts on disability law and � in a time when federal civil rights laws are being narrowed � strongly states that California has independent � and broader � disability laws. “If, indeed, we see an entrenchment in civil rights,” she says, “the importance of states’ rights increases.” Attorney General Bill Lockyer says the 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.” While disappointed by the decision, Littler Mendelson partner Alan Levins says he doesn’t think it will have a major impact because the court didn’t apply the Poppink Act retroactively. He also predicts ultimate victory in the trial court. “We are very confident that the record in our particular case is that the employee did not have even a limitation of any kind,” Levins says. “Consequently, we believe the summary judgment will be sustained.” A version of this story originally appeared in The Recorder , a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel and a part of American Lawyer Media.

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