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Claiming disability rights in California just got a lot easier. On Thursday, the California Supreme Court ruled that the definition of a disability for employment and housing purposes is a condition that “limits” a major life activity, rather than the federal law’s more stringent standard that it “substantially limits.” “The ruling is a caution to the lower courts and employers that they cannot assume that the federal law applies in California,” Linda Kilb, the attorney at Berkeley’s Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund Inc. who argued the case for the prevailing side, said Thursday. “Hopefully, it’s a message that employers will take to heart across the state.” Kilb pointed 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. In 1999, Francisco Colmenares sued his employer, Tarzana, Calif.’s Braemar Country Club Inc., for disability discrimination following his 1997 termination after 25 years on the job. Colmenares, a general laborer, had been given light duties at the country club since injuring his back at work in 1981. But in 1997 a new supervisor reassigned him to a job involving 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 by 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 Los Angeles’ 2nd District Court of Appeal affirmed. The high court, in reversing, noted that the state Legislature amended FEHA in 1992 to model 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 remanded Colmenares’ wrongful termination case back to the appeal court for further proceedings. It also, in a footnote, specifically disapproved the rulings in five other FEHA cases that had been decided on the basis that the federal law’s substantial limitations test applied. Kilb said that 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 broader and independent disability laws. “If, indeed, we see an entrenchment in civil rights,” she said, “the importance of state’s rights increases.” Attorney General Bill Lockyer said 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.” Littler Mendelson partner Alan Levins, while disappointed by the decision, said he didn’t think it would have major impact because the court didn’t apply the Poppink Act retroactively. He also predicted 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 said. “Consequently, we believe the summary judgment will be sustained.” The case is Colmenares v. Braemar Country Club Inc., 03 C.D.O.S. 1477.

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