The Colmenares case looked at the contested question of whether California disability rights laws afforded broader protections for people with disabilities than the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Colmenares addressed the definition of disability under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The case required the state high court to determine the scope of the California law definition of “physical disability.”
Francisco Colmenares was a dedicated Braemar Country Club employee for over 25 years. He began as a laborer at the club, working to maintain Braemar’s golf courses, and was soon promoted to maintenance foreman. Mr. Colmenares excelled in his work despite a permanent back injury, until his last year of employment in 1997. At that time he was purposefully reassigned to a construction project that involved putting up wooden fences, digging ditches and pouring cement. These were tasks that Braemar knew Mr. Colmenares would be unable to successfully perform due to his physical restrictions and he was fired. After his termination by Braemar, Mr. Colmenares found work as a golf course foreman with another employer.
The lower courts refused to let the case go to trial, ruling that Mr. Colmenares was not “substantially limited” in major life activities as a result of his back injury and was thus not entitled to FEHA protection. The ADA definition of disability includes the phrase “substantially limited,” and interpreting that phrase had become an important issue in disability law.
Mr. Colmenares appealed to the California Supreme Court, arguing that FEHA has always had a broad definition of disability that covers “limiting” impairments and should be interpreted consistently with its expansive text, regardless of the restrictive interpretations of the ADA disability definition endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999.
In February 2003, the California Supreme Court announced its decision for a broad interpretation of what constitutes a disability under California state law.