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California Disability Umbrella Is Wider

January 09, 2002|LISA GIRION | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Supreme Court's ruling Tuesday in the case of the Toyota assembly worker is expected to have little effect in California, where the state's Fair Employment and Housing Act features a more worker-friendly definition of disabilities that qualify for on-the-job accommodations.

"It's not going to close the courthouse doors for employees in California who have these less-severe impairments," said Rod M. Fliegel, a partner at Littler Mendelson, the nation's largest employment law firm.

Fred Main, senior vice president of the California Chamber of Commerce, said the ruling is the latest out of the federal courts that illustrates the differences between state and federal workplace laws. "As in many issues of employment law, California's courts are a more favorable venue than the federal courts for workers," Main said.

California's Fair Employment and Housing Act requires accommodation of workers whose disabilities merely "limit" the performance of a "life activity," lawyers said. The Americans with Disabilities Act more narrowly defines a disability that requires accommodation as an impairment that "substantially limits" the performance of "major life activities."

Claudia Senter, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society's Employment Law Center in San Francisco, said the Supreme Court's latest opinion further narrows the definition of disability by saying that an impairment must "severely restrict" performance. " 'Severely' [is] a really high standard. In California law, it's only a regular 'limitation.' It doesn't have to be a 'severe limitation.' It doesn't have to be a 'substantial limitation.' It just has to be a 'limitation.' "

California's law covers most non-federal workers at firms with five or more employees.

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