California Supreme Court Decides Disability Rights Case

For Immediate Release — Feb 20, 2003

For Further Information, Please Contact:

Linda D. Kilb, Esq.
Julia Epstein
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Inc. (DREDF)
Berkeley, California
(510) 644-2555

Joseph M. Lovretovich, Esq.
Law Offices of Joseph M. Lovretovich
Woodland Hills, California
(818) 593-6300

California Supreme Court Confirms Broad Reach of Disability Rights Laws
State Law Definition of “Physical Disability” More Expansive Than Federal ADA

Berkeley, California — The California Supreme Court today announced its decision in Colmenares v. Braemar Country Club, the first case in a decade that the state high court has heard involving the issue of what constitutes a disability under California state law. The case looked at the contested question of whether California disability rights laws afford broader protections for people with disabilities than the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Mr. Colmenares was represented in the high court by Joseph M. Lovretovich and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Inc. (DREDF). DREDF attorney Linda D. Kilb argued the case on December 4, 2002.

Francisco Colmenares was a dedicated Braemar 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 soon fired.

The Colmenares case addressed the breadth of the definition of “physical disability” under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the state’s key employment nondiscrimination statute. The potential differences between state and federal definitions of disability became critically significant beginning in the late 1990s, as the U.S. Supreme Court has moved to narrow the reach of federal civil rights laws. For example, recent federal decisions have placed new restrictions on the types of conditions that qualify as “disabilities,” and new restrictions on whether and how states can be sued under federal laws. Thus, strong state laws are an increasingly important resource for civil rights communities that want to ensure equal access.

In its unanimous Colmenares decision, the California Supreme Court confirmed that there has always been a “notable difference” between the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the state’s FEHA, which was enacted a decade before the ADA. Specifically, while federal law covers individuals whose impairments “substantially limit” one or more major life activities, FEHA protects individuals with physical impairments that merely “limit” major life activities. This decision is in keeping with the high court’s consistent recognition of the state’s broad public policy and legislative commitment to nondiscrimination protection for all Californians.

The importance of the case is underscored by the fact that the California Attorney General, as well as a coalition of California disability community groups, filed “friend of the court” briefs on behalf of Mr. Colmenares. Attorney General Bill Lockyer praised the Court’s action today, emphasizing “Under this ruling, all Californians with physical disabilities will receive full protection in the workplace.”

Mr. Colmenares filed his lawsuit in state court in 1999, asserting that his back injury is a “physical disability” under FEHA, and seeking redress for Braemar’s termination on the basis of that disability.  Mr. Colmenares, who found work as a golf course foreman with another company after Braemar fired him, is pleased with today’s decision. “All I ever wanted was a job, a job to help me raise my family.” Notes Mr. Lovretovich, a southern California attorney specializing in employment and labor law who has represented Mr. Colmenares from the beginning of his lawsuit, “We believe that this case has always been about Mr. Colmenares’s desire to work and his capabilities, and today’s decision endorses that view. The Court has made it clear that employers, as well as judges hearing nondiscrimination claims, must focus their attention on an employee’s ability to do the job, rather than on the disability.”

DREDF joined the representation as co-counsel in the California Supreme Court, and DREDF attorney Linda D. Kilb highlights the broader impact of the Colmenares decision. “This opinion recognizes that California has broad and independent disability civil rights laws that must be interpreted as the California Legislature intended, on their own terms, notwithstanding the recent trend in the federal courts to narrow the reach of federal civil rights laws.”

Based in Berkeley, California, DREDF is a national non-profit law and policy center widely recognized for its expertise in the interpretation of disability rights laws. Staffed and Board-run by persons with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities, DREDF is involved in education, policy, and advocacy efforts dedicated to protecting and advancing the civil rights of persons with disabilities.