California High Court Separates 'Disability' From Federal Standards

February 21, 2003 ( - A recent decision by the California Supreme Court has redefined an employment disability.

The decision marks the Golden State Court’s first attempt to address the definition of disability under the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).     The ruling sets California’s interpretation of a disability for employment and housing purposes as a circumstance that “limits” a major life activity, as opposed to the federal law’s more rigorous standard that it “substantially limits,” according to a report by The Recorder.

The court’s ruling sent Francisco Colmenares’ wrongful termination case back to the appeal court for further proceedings. Additionally, in a footnote, the court 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.


Colmenares sued his employer Braemar Country Club Inc, in 1999 for disability discrimination after being fired following 25 years with the company. Colmenares, a general laborer, had been given light duties at Braemar since injuring his back at work in 1981. However, in 1997, a new supervisor reassigned him to a job involving heavy duties and 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 said that FEHA followed federal law.  In the initial trial, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald Cappai ruled in favor of Braemar.    A subsequent appeal to the California 2nd District Court of Appeal affirmed the lower court’s decision.

Supreme Court Ruling

California’s Supreme Court , in reversing the 2nd District Court decision, 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. Further, California enacted the Prudence Kay Poppink Act in 2001.  
The passage of the act defined a disability as a physiological condition that “limits” a major life activity.

“Of particular relevance here,” Justice Joyce Kennard wrote for a unanimous Supreme 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.”